The Robinson Library >> Science >> Biography
Alexander von Humboldt

a founder of modern geography and a pioneer in plant geography and climatology

Alexander von Humboldt

Early Life and Education

Friedrich Wilhelm Henrich Alexander von Humboldt was born in Berlin, Prussia, on September 14, 1769. His father, Alexander Georg von Humboldt, died in 1779 and he, along with his brother Wilhelm, were raised by their rather mother. As members of a prominent and wealthy Pomeranian family, both boys received their basic education from private tutors. While still young, Humboldt frequently engaged himself in the collecting and labeling of plants, insects, and shells.

Groomed from an early age for a political career, Humboldt spent six months studying economics at the University of Frankfurt before transferring to the University of Göttingen, where he studied geology, biology, and political science. He then studied mining and metallurgy at the School of Mines in Freiburg, Saxony. A scientific excursion up the Rhine River resulted in his 1790 treatise Mineralogische Beobachtungen über einige Basalte am Rhein (Mineralogic Observtions on Several Basalts on the River Rhine).

Mine Inspector and Other Early Work

In 1792, Humboldt obtained an appointment in the Mining Department of the Prussian government, as a mine inspector in Bayreuth and the Fichtel mountains. In this capacity, he travelled untiringly from one mine to the next, reorganizing the partly deserted and totally neglected pits, which produced mainly gold and copper. He also supervised all mining activities, invented a safety lamp, and established, with his own funds, a technical school for young miners.

Humboldt's researches into the vegetation of the mines of Freiburg led to the publication of Florae Fribergensis, accedunt Aphorismi ex Doctrina, Physiologiae Chemicae Plantarum (1793), a compendium of his botantical researches.

In 1792 and 1797, Humboldt was in Vienna, Austria, and in 1795 he made a geological and botanical tour through Switzerland and Italy. Although he regarded his service to the state as little more than a way of conducting scientific research for pay, he did his job so well that he rose to the highest post in his department, and was also entrusted with several important diplomatic missions.

The death of Humboldt's mother, on November 19, 1796, left him an inheritance that allowed him to focus more of his time on scientific pursuits. Becoming interested in Luigi Galvani's discovery of muscular irritability, Humboldt carried out extensive experiments upon himself, the results of which were published in 1797 as Versuche über die gereizte Muskel- und Nervenfaser (Experiments on Stimulated Muscle and Nerve Fibres). In this paper, he set forth his ideas in the form of practical chemistry rather than as speculative considerations.

Latin American Expedition

In 1797, Humboldt left his government position and traveled to Paris, where he expected to join a major scientific expedition. Although that expedition ended up being postponed due to continuing warfare in Europe, Humboldt did have the good fortune of meeting Aimé Bonpland, who was supposed to have been the botanist and physician for the voyage. With France denying them the opportunity to engage in or join any scientific expeditions, the two decided to approach King Charles IV of Spain for permission to conduct a scientific exploration of Spain's American possessions. Thanks to some influential friends, and Humboldt's willingness to fund the expedition himself, permission was granted.

Humbolt and Bonpland sailed from La Coruña, Spain, aboard the Pizarro on June 5, 1799. The ship spent six days on the island of Tenerife (in the Canary Islands), where Humboldt climbed the volcano Teide, before sailing on to the New World, and landed at Cumaná, New Granada (now Venezuela), on July 16.

map of Humboldt's Latin American expedition
Humboldt's Latin American expedition

While in Venezuela, Humboldt explored the Guácharo Cavern, where he discovered the oilbird (Steatornis caripensis), and observed the Leonids. From Cumaná, Humboldt and Bonpland went to Caracas, where Humboldt climbed Mount Avila. In February 1800, the two men embarked on an exploration of the Orinoco River. During the trip, which lasted four months and covered 1,725 miles of wild and largely unexplored country, the two proved the existence of a "link" between the water-systems of the Orinoco and Amazon rivers, discovered the Amazon River Dolphin (Inia geoffrensis) in the Orinoco River at a time when it was still thought only to be present in the Amazon, caught and dissected electric eels (Electrophorus electricus), from which they received a great number of electric shocks, and documented the life of several native tribes.

In November 1800, Humboldt and Bonpland sailed for Cuba, where they gathered botanical specimens until March 1801, when they returned to South America.

In July 1801, Humboldt and Bonpland left Cartagena (now in Colombia) via the Magdalena River, which they followed to Bogotá. From there, they trekked overland, via the frozen ridges of the Cordillera Real, to Quito (now in Ecuador), which was reached in January 1802, and then to Lima, Peru, which was reached in October 1802. During this journey, they ascended Mount Chimborazo to a record altitude of 19,286 feet (about a thousand feet short of the summit). Like many other mountain climbers, the two men suffered "mountain sickness" during the ascent; Humboldt subsequently became the first person to ascribe the malady to the lack of oxygen in the rarefied air of great heights. While en route to Lima, Humboldt and Bonpland explored the headwaters of the Amazon River. At Lima, Humboldt observed the transit of Mercury, and made investigations into the fertilizing properties of guano that led ultimately to the export of guano to Europe.

Humboldt and Bonpland at the foot of Chimborazo
Humboldt and Bonpland at the foot of Chimborazo

From Lima, Humboldt and Bonpland sailed along the coast to Guayaquil (now in Ecuador). During this voyage Humboldt measured the temperatures of the ocean current off the west coast of South America which now bears his name. From Guayaquil, they sailed to what is now Acapulco, Mexico, which was reached in March 1803. They spent a year visiting Mexican cities in the central plateau and the northern mining region before taking their leave from Verazruz in March 1804. Following a three-week visit to the United States, during which Humboldt met and became friends with then-President Thomas Jefferson, the pair returned to Europe, arriving at Bordeaux, France, on August 1, 1804.

Publication of Data

The years from 1804 to 1827 Humboldt devoted to publication of the data accumulated on the South American expedition. With the exception of brief visits to Berlin, he lived in Paris during this period. There, he found not only collaborators among the French scientists, but engravers for his maps and illustrations and publishers for printing the 30 volumes into which the scientific results of the expedition were compiled. A very popular figure amongst both fellow scientists and the general public, Humboldt frequently lectured at the Institut National in Paris (Paris Institute).

Humboldt's discovery of the decrease in intensity of the earth's magnetic force from the poles to the equator was received by the Paris Institute in 1804. His continuing services to geology were based on his study of the volcanoes of the Andes Mountains. He demonstrated that they fell naturally in linear groups, presumably corresponding with vast subterranean fissures, and by his demonstration of the igneous formation of rocks corrected many errors in thought. He formed extensive theories on magnetism, volcanicity, seismology and tectonics.

The Equinoctial Plants was published in 1805. The same year also saw Ideas for a Geography of Plants and a Nature Picture of the Tropics. His Essay on the Geography of Plants (1807) was based on the then novel idea of studying the distribution of organic life as affected by varying physical conditions. This was most famously depicted in a 2-by-3-foot color map he called Ein Naturgemälde der Anden, now commonly known as the Chimborazo Map. The fold-out at the back of the publication included written descriptions on either side of the cross-section of Chimborazo that detailed the information on temperature, altitude, humidity, atmosphere pressure, and the animal and plants (with their scientific names) found at each elevation. Plants from the same genus appear at different elevations.

Ein Naturgemälde der Anden
Ein Naturgemälde der Anden

Humboldt's extensive meteorological observations, with an emphasis on mean daily and nightly temperatures, allowed him to produce the first ever map with isothermal lines (lines connecting points of the same temperature), in 1817. The data and map helped lay the foundation for the science of comparative climatology.

Humboldt's Isothermal Chart
Humboldt's Isothermal Chart

Humboldt's Political Essay on the Kingdom of New Spain (1814) contained a wealth of material on the geography and geology of Mexico, including descriptions of its political, social, and economic conditions, and also extensive population statistics. Humboldt’s impassioned outcry in this work against the inhumanities of slavery remained unheard, but his descriptions of the Mexican silver mines led to widespread investment of English capital and mining expertise in those mines.

Later Life

By 1827 Humboldt's inheritance was almost gone and in that year he had to return to Berlin, where he joined the King Frederick William III's court as a tutor to the Crown Prince, as a member of the privy council, and as a court chamberlain. He made use of his positions to acquaint the young prince and the royal family with scientific methods and the scientific ideas of his time. His enthusiasm for the popularization of science prompted him to give a course on physical geography at the University of Berlin. In the autumn of 1828 he organized in Berlin one of the first international scientific conferences. Humboldt passed the last 30 years of his life in Berlin. Once a year he travelled to Paris, where he renewed his contacts with the French scientists. He also frequently accompanied the King of Prussia and allied sovereigns to different congresses and visits to London and European capitals.

In 1829, Humboldt accepted an invitation from Czar Nicholas of Russia to lead an expedition into the Ural Mountains and Central Asia for the purpose of preparing a report on the regions' mineral resources. He and two young scientists, constantly accompanied by an official guard, completed a 9,000-mile exploratory trek that carried them as far as the Chinese border and back by the Caspian Sea. The most important results of this extensive tour were the completion of meteorological data for the isothermal world map, a theory of the orographic configuration of the central Asiatic mountain systems and tablelands, and the discovery of diamonds in the gold mines of the Urals.

Although Humboldt continued to make and record observations in a wide variety of fields, he spent much of his later life working on The Cosmos: Outline of a Description of the Physical World, which was published in five volumes between 1845 and 1862 (the last volume being published, unfinished, after his death). Based on his 1827-1828 lectures at the University of Berlin, the work was Humboldt's attempt to unify all of the sciences then known in one framework in order to describe fully the physical universe. A huge success, it was eventually translated into most European languages.

Humboldt suffered a minor stroke on February 24, 1857. Two years later, his health began to decline, and he died in Berlin May 6, 1859. He was given a state funeral, and buried in the family cemetery at Tegel (now a district of Berlin).

Encyclopædia Britannica
Famous Scientists

Luigi Galvani
King Charles IV
Canary Islands
Electric Eels
Lima, Peru
Thomas Jefferson

Questions or comments about this page?

The Robinson Library >> Science >> Biography

This page was last updated on 05/06/2017.