Alexander von Humboldt, the German natural scientist and great explorer, died 160 years ago


Friedrich Wilhelm Heinrich Alexander Freiherr von Humboldt was one of the greatest German natural scientists, explorers and geographers. His exploratory journeys have brought a lot of new knowledge in the fields of botany, anthropology, volcanology, metrology, mineralogy and even archaeology. The foundation of biogeography and comparative climatology as disciplines is associated with his name.

Alexander von Humboldt was born in Berlin on 14 September 1769. He lost his father early, at the age of 9, so his mother – who was a fairly distant and cold woman – raised him and his brother up on her own. His brother, Wilhelm, later gained reputation as a statesman and linguist. Humboldt first studied economics, engineering, mineralogy, and mining. From 1787, he attended the university in Frankfurt and then in Berlin in 1788, and later he studied in Göttingen.

Humboldt was attracted to the tropical world from an early age. During his studies in Göttingen, science became the major trend in his studies. He also prepared his first work here. In the spring and summer of 1790, he travelled to Belgium, Netherlands, England and France with Georg Forster where he met a lot of famous natural scientists. At the age of 22, after staying in Berlin for five months, he went to the Freiberg School of Mines where he became the president of the mining department and then, a year later, from July 1793, he was appointed to be the head of mining and metallurgy affairs of the Principality of Bayreuth. In the same year, he travelled to Upper Bavaria, Salzburg, Salzkammergut and Galicia to study salt production. He performed diplomatic missions in several countries. He visited England, Switzerland, Austria and France. In July 1796, he was entrusted with a diplomatic assignment again and was sent to the French headquarters, where he managed to persuade General Moreau that the Hohenzollern lands of Swabia would be saved.

In 1797, Humboldt left the state service and for a short time he lived in Jena, dealing with botanical studies. He then travelled to Salzburg for meteorological observations. Finally, he decided to fulfil his old dreams and travelled to far-off lands. To do this, he managed to gain the support of Charles IV of Spain, so in 1799, with a French botanist, he left for Latin America to study the flora and fauna there. During their 5 years of research work, they travelled over 10,000 kilometres, and visited the Spanish colonies mainly on horseback, on foot or by canoe.
They studied the Orinoco countryside and recognized the long-debuted relationship between the Amazon and Orinoco river systems. They visited the Andes plateaux, and climbed the Chimborazo which was considered to be the highest point in the world at that time. Humboldt studied the natural history and society of Cuba in depth, thus it was not accident that he was referred to as the “second explorer of Cuba”.
On the west coast of South America, he discovered a cold sea current, and Humboldt Current was named after him. In Mexico, he was asked to be a member of their government, but he refused it. On his way home, in Washington, he met Thomas Jefferson.
The results of their Latin American expedition were published in 30 volumes, partly in French and partly in Latin. Humboldt worked for nearly 27 years on the processing of their discoveries. Several academies have elected him as their member. The Prussian King appointed him to be a chamberer and gave him an annuity. In 1827, he returned to Berlin, where he became the advisor of the Prussian Prince, William.
In the spring of 1829, he travelled to St. Petersburg for the invitation of the Russian Czar Nicholas, to prepare for his Siberian expedition on behalf of the Czarist government. Humboldt made geographic, geological, and meteorological observations as he travelled through the Urals, Siberia, Inner Asia and China. On their way to the southern Ural, through the desert of Isim, they reached the Kyzylkum Desert of the small horde and the Caspian Sea. After 9 months, they returned through Tula and Moscow. The results of the trip were summarized by Humboldt in a two-volume work.

Towards the end of his life, Humboldt lived partly in Berlin, partly in his property in Tegel, near Berlin. In his last great work, the Cosmos, he introduced nature as one interacting entity. Humboldt never married, he left his prestigious possessions for scientific purposes. His statue was set up in Berlin in 1883, alongside with his brother’s statue in front of the university. The Humboldt Foundation supporting scientific projects and researchers was established to commemorate him. The great German explorer has written his name forever in the history of discoveries. His legacy is still a significant value for the history of science in the world. Humboldt’s vast literary work consist of individual work as well as a series of minor and major dissertations and articles published in French and German journals. His legacy was digitized and made available to everyone. According to the Berlin State Library, Humboldt’s work can be traced on 75,000 records.

Alexander von Humboldt died at the age of 90, on 6 May 1859, leaving a productive and adventurous life behind.