Alexander von Humboldt

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Alexander von Humboldt
Alexander von Humboldt (by Joseph Stieler, 1843)
Born 14 September 1769
Died 6 May 1859(1859-05-06) (aged 89)
Nationality German
Fields Geography
Known for Biogeography, Kosmos (1845), Humboldt current
Influences Schelling
Influenced Darwin, Thoreau, Muir
Notable awards Copley Medal (1852)

Friedrich Wilhelm Heinrich Alexander von Humboldt (About this sound listen ; 14 September 1769 – 6 May 1859) was a Prussian geographer, naturalist, explorer, and influential proponent of romantic philosophy. He was the younger brother of the Prussian minister, philosopher, and linguist Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767–1835).[1][2][3] Humboldt's quantitative work on botanical geography laid the foundation for the field of biogeography. Humboldt's advocacy of long-term systematic geophysical measurement laid the foundation for modern geomagnetic and meteorological monitoring.[4][5]

Between 1799 and 1804, Humboldt travelled extensively in Latin America, exploring and describing it for the first time from a modern scientific point of view. His description of the journey was written up and published in an enormous set of volumes over 21 years. Humboldt was one of the first people to propose that the lands bordering the Atlantic Ocean were once joined (South America and Africa in particular). Humboldt resurrected the use of the word cosmos from the ancient Greek and assigned it to his multi-volume treatise, Kosmos, in which he sought to unify diverse branches of scientific knowledge and culture. This important work also motivated a holistic perception of the universe as one interacting entity.[6]

Biography of Early Life

File:Schloss Tegel1.JPG
The Tegel Palace (or Humboldt Palace), where Alexander von Humboldt and Wilhelm von Humboldt lived for several years.

Early life and education

Humboldt as a boy with his widowed mother, Maria Elisabeth (Colomb) von Humboldt

Alexander von Humboldt was born in Berlin in Prussia on 14 September 1769.[7] He was baptized as a baby in the Lutheran faith, with the Duke of Brunswick serving as godfather.[8]

Humboldt's father, Alexander Georg von Humboldt, belonged to a prominent Pomeranian family, although not one of the titled gentry; a major in the Prussian Army, who had served with the Duke of Brunswick.[9] At age 42, Alexander Georg was rewarded for his services in the Seven Years' War with the post of Royal Chamberlain. He profited from the contract to lease state lotteries and tobacco sales.[10] He first married the daughter of Prussian General Adjutant Schweder.[7] In 1766, apparently a widower[clarification needed], Alexander Georg married Maria Elisabeth Colomb, a well-educated woman and widow of Baron Hollwede, with whom she had a son. Alexander Georg and Maria Elisabeth had three children, a daughter, who died young, and then two sons, Wilhelm and Alexander. Her first-born son, Wilhelm's and Alexander's half-brother, was something of a ne'er do well, not often mentioned in the family history.[11]

Alexander Georg died in 1799, leaving the brothers Humboldt in the care of their emotionally distant mother. She did have high ambitions for Alexander and his older brother Wilhelm, hiring excellent tutors, who were Enlightenment thinkers, including Kantian physician Marcus Herz and botanist Karl Ludwig Willdenow, who became one of the most important botanists in Germany.[12] Humboldt's mother expected them to become civil servants of the Prussian state.[13] The money Baron Holwede left to Alexander's mother became, after her death, instrumental in funding Alexander's explorations, contributing more than 70% of his private income.[clarification needed]

Due to his youthful penchant for collecting and labeling plants, shells and insects, Alexander received the playful title of "the little apothecary". Marked for a political career, Alexander studied finance for six months at the University of Frankfurt (Oder), which his mother might have chosen less for its academic excellence as its closeness to their home in Berlin[14] A year later, he matriculated at Göttingen, then known for the lectures of C.G. Heyne and anatomist J.F. Blumenbach.[15] His brother Wilhelm was already a student at Göttingen, but they did not interact much since their intellectual interests were quite different.[16] His vast and varied interests were by this time fully developed.

At Göttingen he met Georg Forster, a naturalist who had been with Captain James Cook on his second voyage.[17] Humboldt traveled with Forster in Europe. The two traveled to England, Humboldt's first sea voyage, The Netherlands, and France.[16][18] In England, he met Sir Joseph Banks, President of the Royal Society, who had traveled with Captain Cook; Banks showed Humboldt his huge herbarium, with specimens of the South Sea tropics.[19] The scientific friendship between Banks and Humboldt lasted until Banks's death in 1820, and the two shared botanical specimens for study. Banks also mobilized his scientific contacts in later years to aid Humboldt's work.[20]

Humboldt's scientific excursion up the Rhine resulted in his 1790 treatise Mineralogische Beobachtungen über einige Basalte am Rhein (Brunswick, 1790) (Mineralogic Observations on Several Basalts on the River Rhine).

Portrait of Alexander von Humboldt by Friedrich Georg Weitsch, 1806

Humboldt's passion for travel was of long standing. Humboldt's talents were devoted to the purpose of preparing himself as a scientific explorer. With this emphasis, he studied commerce and foreign languages at Hamburg, geology at Technische Universität Bergakademie Freiberg in 1791 under A.G. Werner, leader of the Neptunist school of geology;[21] from anatomy at Jena under J.C. Loder; and astronomy and the use of scientific instruments under F.X. von Zach and J.G. Köhler. At Freiberg, he met a number of men who were to prove important to him in his later career, including Spaniard Manuel del Rio, who became director of the School of Mines the crown established in Mexico; Christian Leopold von Buch, who became a regional geologist; and, most importantly, Karl Freiesleben, who became Humboldt's tutor and close friend.[22] During this period, his brother Wilhelm married, but Alexander did not attend the nuptials.[22]

Travels and work in Europe

Humboldt graduated from the Freiberg School of Mines in 1792 and was appointed to a Prussian government position in the Department of Mines as an inspector in Bayreuth and the Fichtel mountains.[23] Humboldt was excellent at his job, with production of gold ore in his first year outstripping the previous eight years.[23] During his period as a mine inspector, Humboldt demonstrated his deep concern for the men laboring in the mines. He opened a free school for miners, paid for out of his own pocket, which became an unchartered government training school for labor. He also sought to establish an emergency relief fund for miners, aiding them following accidents.[24]

Humboldt's researches into the vegetation of the mines of Freiberg led to the publication in Latin (1793) of his Florae Fribergensis, accedunt Aphorismi ex Doctrina, Physiologiae Chemicae Plantarum, which was a compendium of his botantical researches.[25] That publication brought him to the attention of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who had met Humboldt at the family home when Alexander was a boy, but Goethe was now interested in meeting the young scientist in order to discuss metamorphism of plants.[26] The meeting initiated a life-long friendship between the two; Goethe was a major figure in German literature, but he was also deeply interested in science.

Schiller, Wilhelm and Alexander von Humboldt with Goethe in Jena

In 1794 Humboldt was admitted to the famous group of intellectuals and cultural leaders of Weimar Classicism. Goethe and Schiller were the key figures at the time. Humboldt contributed (7 June 1795) to Schiller's new periodical, Die Horen, a philosophical allegory entitled Die Lebenskraft, oder der rhodische Genius.

In 1792 and 1797 he was in Vienna; in 1795 he made a geological and botanical tour through Switzerland and Italy. Although this service to the state was regarded by him as only an apprenticeship to the service of science, he fulfilled its duties with such conspicuous ability that not only did he rise rapidly to the highest post in his department, but he was also entrusted with several important diplomatic missions.

The death of his stern mother, on 19 November 1796 after a year's suffering with cancer, set him free. Neither brother attended the funeral.[27] Humboldt had not hidden his aversion to his mother, with one correspondent writing him after her death, "her death...must be particularly welcomed by you."[28] After severing his official connections, he awaited an opportunity to fulfill his long-cherished dream of travel.

Humboldt was able to spend more time on writing up his research. He had used his own body for experimentation on muscular irritability, recently discovered by Luigi Galvani and published his results, Versuche über die gereizte Muskel- und Nervenfaser (Berlin, 1797) (Experiments on the Frayed Muscle and Nerve Fibres), enriched in the French translation with notes by Blumenbach.

Latin American expedition, 1799-1804

Alexander von Humboldt's Latin American expedition

Seeking a foreign expedition

With the financial resources to finance his scientific travels, he sought a ship on a major expedition. Meantime, he went to Paris where his brother Wilhelm was now living. Paris was a great center of scientific learning and his brother and sister-in-law Caroline were well connected in those circles. Louis-Antoine de Bougainville urged Humboldt to accompany him on a major expedition, likely to last five years, but the French revolutionary Directoire placed Nicolas Baudin at the head it rather than the aging scientific traveler.[29] On the postponement of Captain Baudin's proposed voyage of circumnavigation due to continuing warfare in Europe, which Humboldt had been officially invited to accompany, Humboldt was deeply disappointed. He had already selected scientific instruments for his voyage. He did, however, have a stroke of luck with meeting Aimé Bonpland, the botanist and physician for the voyage. Discouraged the two left Paris for Marseilles, where they hoped to join Napoleon Bonaparte in Egypt. But North Africans were in revolt against the French invasion in Egypt and French authorities refused permission to travel. Humboldt and Bonpland eventually found their way to Madrid, where their luck changed spectacularly.[30]

Spanish royal authorization 1799

In Madrid, Humboldt sought authorization to travel to Spain's realms in the Americas; he was aided in obtaining it by the German representative of Saxony at the royal Bourbon court. Baron Forell had an interest in mineralogy and science endeavors and inclined to help Humboldt.[30] Humboldt's timing could not have been better to interest the Spanish crown in an extended scientific expedition to their possessions in the New World. With the accession of the House of Bourbon to the Spanish throne following the death of the last Hapsburg king, Charles II (d. 1700), and the War of the Spanish Succession, which the House of Bourbon won, the Spanish Bourbons embarked on a program of reform in Spain and then Spanish America. The Bourbon Reforms sought to reform administration of the realms and revitalize their economies.[31] At the same time as the Bourbon reforms, the Spanish Enlightenment was in florescence. For Humboldt, "the confluent effect of the Bourbon revolution in government and the Spanish Enlightenment had created ideal conditions for his venture."[32]

The Bourbon monarchy had already authorized and funded expeditions, with the Botanical Expedition to the Viceroyalty of Peru to Chile and Peru (1777–88), New Granada (1783-1816), New Spain (Mexico) (1787-1803), and the Malaspina Expedition (1789–94). These were lengthy, state-sponsored enterprises to gather information about plants and animals from the Spanish realms, assess economic possibilities, and provide plants and seeds for the Royal Botanical Garden in Madrid (founded 1755).[33] These expeditions took naturalists and artists, who created visual images as well as careful written observations as well as collecting seeds and plants themselves.[34] Crown officials as early as 1779 issued and systematically distributed Instructions concerning the most secure and economic means to transport live plants by land and sea from the most distant countries, with illustrations, including one for the crates to transport seeds and plants.[35]

When Humboldt requested authorization from the crown to travel to Spanish America, most importantly, with his own financing, it was given positive response. Spain had under the Hapsburg monarchy had guarded its realms against foreigner travelers and intruders. The Bourbon monarch was open to Humboldt's proposal. Spanish Foreign Minister Don Mariano Luis de Urquijo received the formal proposal and Humboldt was presented to the monarch in March 1799.[30] Humboldt was granted access to crown officials and written documentation on Spain's empire. With Humboldt's experience working as for the absolutist Prussian monarchy as a government mining official, Humboldt had both the academic training and experience of working well within a bureaucratic structure.[36]

Venezuela 1799-1800

Humboldt and Bonpland in the Amazon rainforest by the Casiquiare River, with their scientific instruments, which enabled them to take many types of accurate measurements throughout their five-year journey. Oil painting by Eduard Ender, 1856.

Armed with authorization from the King of Spain, Humboldt and Bonpland made haste to sail, taking the ship Pizarro from A Coruña, on 5 June 1799. The ship stopped six days on the island of Tenerife, where Humboldt climbed the volcano Teide, and then sailed on to the New World, landing at Cumaná, Venezuela, on 16 July.

The ship's destination was not originally Cunamá, but an outbreak of typhoid on board so that the captain changed course from Havana to land in northern South America. Humboldt had not mapped out a specific plan of exploration, so that the change did not upend a fixed itinerary. He later wrote that the diversion to Venezuela made possible his explorations along the Orinoco River to the border of Portuguese Brazil. With the diversion, the Pizarro encounter two large dugout canoes each carrying 18 Guayaqui Indians. The Pizarro's, captain accepted the offer of one of them to serve as pilot. Humboldt hired this Indian, named Carlos del Pino, as a guide.[37]

Venezuela from the sixteenth century to the eighteenth was a relative backwater compared to the seats of the Spanish viceroyalties based in New Spain (Mexico) and Peru, but during the Bourbon reforms, the northern portion of Spanish South America was reorganized administratively, with the 1777 establishment of a Captaincy-General based at Caracas. A great deal of information on the new jurisdiction had already been compiled by François de Pons and published in 1806.[36][38] Rather than describe the administrative center of Caracas, Humboldt started his researches with the valley of Aragua where export crops of sugar, coffee, cacao, and cotton were cultivated. Cacao plantations were the most profitable as world demand for chocolate rose.[39]

Humboldt visited the mission at Caripe and explored the Guácharo cavern, where he found the oil-bird, which he was to make known to science as Steatornis caripensis. Returning to Cumaná, Humboldt observed, on the night of 11–12 November, a remarkable meteor shower (the Leonids). He proceeded with Bonpland to Caracas where he climbed the Avila mount with the young poet Andrés Bello, the former tutor of Simón Bolívar, who later became the leader of independence in northern South America. Humboldt met the Venezuelan Bolívar himself in 1804 in Paris and spent time with him in Rome. The documentary record does not support the supposition that Humboldt inspired Bolívar to participate in the struggle for independence, but it does indicate Bolívar's admiration for Humboldt's production of new knowledge on Spanish America.[40]

In February 1800, Humboldt and Bonpland left the coast with the purpose of exploring the course of the Orinoco River and its tributaries. This trip, which lasted four months and covered 1,725 miles (2,776 km) of wild and largely uninhabited country, had the important result of establishing the existence of the Casiquiare canal (a communication between the water-systems of the rivers Orinoco and Amazon), and of determining the exact position of the bifurcation, as well as documenting the life of several native tribes such as the Maipures and their extinct rivals the Atures (several words of the latter tribe were transferred to Humboldt by one parrot[41]). Around 19 March 1800, Humboldt and Bonpland discovered dangerous electric eels, whose shock could kill a man. To catch them, locals suggested they drive wild horses into the river, which brought the eels out from the river mud, and resulted in a violent confrontation of eels and horses, some of which died. Humboldt and Bonpland captured and dissected some eels, which retained their ability to shock; both received potentially dangerous electric shocks during their investigations. The encounter made Humboldt think more deeply about electricity and magnetism, typical of his ability to extrapolate from an observation more general principles.[42] Humboldt returned to the incident in several of his later writings, including his travelogue Personal Narrative (1814–29), Views of Nature (1807), and Aspects of Nature (1849).[43]

Two months later they explored the territory of the Maypures and that of the then recently extinct Aturès Indians. Humboldt laid to rest the persistent myth of Walter Raleigh's Lake Parime by proposing that the seasonal flooding of the Rupununi savannah had been misidentified as a lake.[44]

Cuba 1800, 1804

On 24 November 1800, the two friends set sail for Cuba, landing on December 19,[45] where they met fellow botanist and plant collector John Fraser.[46] Fraser and his son had been shipwrecked off the Cuban coast, and did not have a license to be in the Spanish Indies. Humboldt, who was already in Cuba, interceded with crown officials in Havana, as well as giving them money and clothing. Fraser obtained permission to remain in Cuba and explore. Humboldt entrusted Fraser with taking two cases of Humboldt and Bonpland's botanical specimens to England when he returned, for eventual conveyance to the German botantist Willdenow in Berlin.[47] Humboldt and Bonpland stayed in Cuba until March 5, 1801, when they left for the mainland of northern South America again on March 30, 1801.

Humboldt is considered to be the "second discoverer of Cuba" due to the scientific and social research he conducted on this Spanish colony. During an initial three-month stay at Havana, his first tasks were to properly survey that city and the nearby towns of Guanabacoa, Regla and Bejucal. He befriended Cuban landowner and thinker Francisco de Arango y Parreño; together they visited the Guines area in south Havana, the valleys of Matanzas Province and the Valley of the Sugar Mills in Trinidad. Those three areas were, at the time, the first frontier of sugar production in the island. During those trips, Humboldt collected statistical information on Cuba's population, production, technology and trade, and with Arango, made suggestions for enhancing them. He predicted that the agricultural and commercial potential of Cuba was huge and could be vastly improved with proper leadership in the future.

On their way back to Europe from Mexico on their way to the United States, Humboldt and Bonpland stopped again in Cuba, leaving from the port of Veracruz and arriving in Cuba on January 7, 1804 staying until April 29, 1804. In Cuba, he collected material plant material and made extensive notes. During his time he socialized with his scientific and landowner friends, conducted mineralogical surveys and finished his vast collection of the island's flora and fauna that he eventually published as Essai politique sur l'îsle de Cuba.[48]

The Andes 1801-1803

Humboldt and his fellow scientist Aimé Bonpland at the foot of the Chimborazo volcano, painting by Friedrich Georg Weitsch (1810).

After their first stay in Cuba of three months they returned the mainland at Cartagena de Indias (now in Colombia), a major center of trade in northern South America. Ascending the swollen stream of the Magdalena River to Honda and arrived in Bogotá on July 6, 1801 where they met Spanish botanist José Celestino Mutis, the head of the Royal Botantial Expedition to New Granada, staying there until September 8, 1801. Mutis was generous with his time and gave Humboldt access to the huge pictorial record he had compiled since 1783. Mutis was based in Bogotá, but as with other Spanish expeditions, he had access to local knowledge and a workshop of artists, who created highly accurate and detailed images. This type of careful recording meant that even if specimens were not available to study at a distance, "because the images traveled, the botanists did not have to."[49] Humboldt was astounded at Mutis's accomplishment; when Humboldt published his first volume on botany, he dedicated it to Mutis, "as a simply mark of our admiration and acknowledgement."[50]

File:Ilustraciones José Celestino Mutis.jpg
Illustrations from Spanish botanist José Celestino Mutis's work in Colombia.

Humboldt had hopes of connecting with the French sailing expedition of Baudin, now finally underway, so Bonpland an Humboldt hurried to Ecuador.[48] They crossed the frozen ridges of the Cordillera Real, they reached Quito on 6 January 1802, after a tedious and difficult journey.

Their stay in Ecuador was marked by the ascent of Pichincha and their climb of Chimborazo, where Humboldt and his party reached an altitude of 19,286 feet (5,878 m). This was a world record at the time, but a thousand feet short of the summit.[51] Humboldt's journey concluded with an expedition to the sources of the Amazon en route for Lima, Peru.[52]

At Callao, the main port for Peru, Humboldt observed the transit of Mercury. On 9 November and studied the fertilizing properties of guano, rich in nitrogen, the subsequent introduction of which into Europe was due mainly to his writings.

Mexico 1803-04

File:Vues des Cordillères, et monumens des peuples indigènes de l'Amérique (1813) (14781309784).jpg
Basalt prisms at Santa María Regla, Mexico by Alexander von Humboldt, published in Vue des Cordillères et monuments des peuples indigènes de l'Amérique
Dresden Codex, later identified as a Maya manuscript, published in part by Humboldt in 1810

Humboldt and Bonpland had not intended to go to New Spain, but when they were unable to join a voyage via the Pacific, they left the Ecuador's port of Guayaquil, headed for Mexico's west coast port of Acapulco, landing February 15, 1803.[53] Even before Humboldt and Bonpland started on their way to New Spain's capital on Mexico's central plateau, Humboldt realized the captain of the vessel that brought them to Acapulco had reckoned its location incorrectly. Since Acapulco was the main west coast port and the terminus of the Asian trade from the Spanish Philippines, having accurate maps of its location was extremely important. Humboldt set up his instruments, surveying the deep water bay of Acapulco, to determine its longitude.[54]

Humboldt and Bonpland arrived in Mexico City, having been officially welcomed via a letter from the king's representative in New Spain, Viceroy Don José de Iturrigaray. Humboldt was also given a special passport to travel throughout New Spain and letters of introduction to intendants, the highest officials in New Spain's administrative districts (intendancies). This official aid to Humboldt allowed him to have access to crown records, mines, landed estates, canals, and Mexican antiquities from the prehispanic era.[55]

They spent year in the viceroyalty, traveling to different Mexican cities. The first journey was from Acapulco to Mexico City, through what is now the Mexican state of Guerrero. The route was suitable only for mule train, and all along the way Humboldt took measurements of elevation. When he left Mexico a year later, from the east coast port of Veracruz, he took a similar set of measures, which resulted in a chart in the Political Essay, the physical plan of Mexico with the dangers of the road from Acapulco to Mexico City, and from Mexico City to Veracruz.[56] This visual depiction of elevation was part of Humboldt's general insistence that the data he collected be presented in a way more easily understood than statistical charts. A great deal of his success in gaining a more general readership for his works was his understanding that "anything that has to do with extent or quantity can be represented geometrically. Statistical projections [charts and graphs], which speak to the senses without tiring the intellect have the advantage of bringing attention to a large number of important facts."[57]

Humboldt was impressed with Mexico City, which at the time was the largest city in the Americas. He declared "no city of the new continent, without even excepting those of the United States, can display such great and solid scientific establishments as the capital of Mexico."[58] He pointed to the Royal School of Mines, the Royal Botanical Garden, and the Royal Academy of San Carlos as exemplars of a metropolitan capital in touch with the latest developments on the continent and insisting on its modernity.[59] He also recognized important creole savants in Mexico, including José Antonio de Alzate y Ramírez, who died in 1799, just before Humboldt's visit; Miguel Velásquez de León; and Antonio de León y Gama.[60]

Humboldt spent time at the Valenciana silver mine in Guanajuato, northern New Spain, at the time the most important in the Spanish empire.[61] He could have simply examined the geology of the fabulously rich mine, but he took the opportunity to study the entire mining complex as well as analyze mining statistics of its output. His report on silver mining is a major contribution, and considered the strongest and best informed section of his Political Essay. Although Humboldt was himself a trained geologist and mining inspector, he drew on mining experts in Mexico. One was Fausto Elhuyar, then head of the General Mining Court in Mexico City, who, like Humboldt was trained in Freiberg. Another was Andrés Manuel del Rio, director of Royal College of Mines, whom Humboldt knew when they were both students in Freiberg.[62] The Bourbon monarchs had established the mining court and the college to elevate mining as a profession, since revenues from silver constituted the crown's largest source of income. Humboldt also consulted other German mining experts, who were already in Mexico.[60] While Humboldt was a welcome foreign scientist and mining expert, the Spanish crown had established fertile ground for Humboldt's investigations into mining.

Spanish America's ancient civilizations were a source of interest for Humboldt, who included images of Mexican manuscripts (or codices) and Inca ruins in his richly illustrated Vues des cordillères et monuments des peuples indigènes de l'Amerique (1810). For Humboldt, a key question was the influence of climate on the development of these civilizations.[63] When he published his Vues des cordillères, he included a color image of the Aztec calendar stone, along with select drawings of the Dresden codex and others he sought out later in European collections. His aim was to muster evidence that these pictorial and sculptural images could allow the reconstruction of prehispanic history. He sought out Mexican experts in the interpretation of sources from there, especially Antonio Pichardo, who was the literary executor of Antonio de León y Gama's work. For American-born Spaniards (creoles) who were seeking sources of pride in Mexico's ancient past, Humboldt's recognition of these ancient works and dissemination in his publications was a boon. However, Humboldt ultimately viewed both the prehispanic realms of Mexico and Peru as despotic and barbaric.[64]

One of his most widely read publications resulting from his travels and investigations in Spanish America was the Essai politique sur le royaum de la Nouvelle Espagne, quickly translated to English as Political Essay on the Kingdom of New Spain (1811).[65] This treatise was the result of Humboldt's own investigations as well as the generosity of Spanish colonial officials for statistical data.[66]

The United States 1804

1804 Map of the Louisiana Territory. Jefferson and his cabinet sought information from Humboldt when he visited Washington, D.C., about Spain's territory in Mexico, now bordering the U.S.

Leaving from Cuba, Humboldt made a short visit to the United States, arriving in Philadelphia, which was a center of learning in the U.S. Humboldt met with some of the major scientific figures of the era, including chemist and anatomist Caspar Wistar, who pushed for compulsory smallpox vaccination, and botanist Benjamin Smith Barton, as well as physician Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, who wished to hear about cinchona bark from a South American tree, which cured fevers.[67] Humboldt later published a treatise in English on cinchona.[68]

Knowing that the current U.S. president, Thomas Jefferson was himself a scientist, Humboldt wrote him saying that he would be in the United States, to which Jefferson warmly replied, inviting him to visit the White House in the new capital of the nation in Washington, D.C. The two held numerous intense discussions on not only on scientific matters, but also particulars of his year-long stay in New Spain. Jefferson had only recently concluded the Louisiana Purchase, which now placed New Spain on the southwest border of the United States. The Spanish minister in Washington, D.C. had declined to furnish the U.S. government with information about Spanish territories. Humboldt's conversations with Jefferson, James Madison, and Albert Gallatin, Secretary of the Treasury yielded important information. Humboldt had made the most accurate maps of Mexico and had copious notes, which later became the basis for his Essay on the Political Kingdom of New Spain (1810), which he allowed these North American officials to copy. Gallatin, in turn, supplied Humboldt with information he sought on the United States.[69]

After six weeks, Humboldt set sail for Europe from the mouth of the Delaware and landed at Bordeaux on 3 August 1804.

Achievements of the Latin American expedition

Humboldt's decades' long endeavor to publish the results of this expedition not only resulted in multiple volumes, but also made his international reputation in scientific circles. Humboldt came to be well-known with the reading public as well, with popular, densely illustrated, condensed versions of his work in multiple languages. Bonpland, his fellow scientist and collaborator on the expedition, collected botanical specimens and preserved them, but unlike Humboldt who had a passion to publish, Bonpland had to be prodded to do the formal descriptions. Many scientific travelers and explorers produced huge visual records, which remained unseen by the general public until the late nineteenth century, in the case of the Malaspina Expedition, and Mutis's botantical some 12,000 drawings from New Granada, published only in the late twentieth century. Humboldt, by contrast, published immediately and continuously, using and ultimately exhausting his personal fortune, to produce both scientific and popular texts. Humboldt's name and fame were made by his travels Spanish America, particularly his publication of the Political Essay on the Kingdom of New Spain. His later image as the premier European scientist was a later development.[70]

For the Bourbon crown, which had authorized the expedition, the returns were not only tremendous in terms of sheer volume of data on their New World realms, but in dispelling the vague and pejorative assessments of the New World by Guillaume-Thomas Raynal, Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, and William Robertson. The achievements of the Bourbon regime, especially in New Spain, were evident in the precise data Humboldt systematized and published.[60]

This memorable expedition may be regarded as having laid the foundation of the sciences of physical geography, plant geography, and meteorology. Key to that was Humboldt's meticulous and systematic measurement of phenomena with the most advanced instruments then available. He closely observed plant and animal species in situ, not just in isolation, noting all elements in relation to one other. He collected specimens of plants and animals, dividing the growing collection so that if a portion was lost, other parts might survive.

Humboldt depicted by American artist Charles Willson Peale, 1805, who met Humboldt when he visited the U.S. in 1804.

Humboldt saw the need for an approach to science that could account for the harmony of nature among the diversity of the physical world. For Humboldt, "the unity of nature" meant that it was the interrelation of all physical sciences—such as the conjoining between biology, meteorology and geology—that determined where specific plants grew. He found these relationships by unraveling myriad, painstakingly collected data,[71] data extensive enough that it became an enduring foundation upon which others could base their work. Humboldt viewed nature holistically, and tried to explain natural phenomena without the appeal to religious dogma. He believed in the central importance of observation, and as a consequence had amassed a vast array of the most sophisticated scientific instruments then available. Each had its own velvet lined box and was the most accurate and portable of its time; nothing quantifiable escaped measurement. According to Humboldt, everything should be measured with the finest and most modern instruments and sophisticated techniques available, for that collected data was the basis of all scientific understanding.

This quantitative methodology would become known as Humboldtian science. Humboldt wrote "Nature herself is sublimely eloquent. The stars as they sparkle in firmament fill us with delight and ecstasy, and yet they all move in orbit marked out with mathematical precision."[72]

File:Zentralbibliothek Zürich - Ideen zu einer Geographie der Pflanzen nebst einem Naturgemälde der Tropenländer - 000012142.jpg
Humboldt's Naturgemälde, his depiction of the Chimborazo volcano in cross section, with detailed information about plant geography. The illustration was published in The Geography of Plants, 1807, in a large format.

His Essay on the Geography of Plants (published in French and German in 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 his published cross-section of Chimborazo, a two feet by three feet color pictorial, he called Ein Naturgemälde der Anden. Humboldt first sketched the Naturgemälde when he was in South America, which included written descriptions on either side of the cross-section of Chimborazo. These detailed the information on temperature, altitude, humidity, atmosphere pressure, and the animal and plants found at each elevation. It had complex information that was depicted in an accessible fashion. It was the basis for comparison with other major peaks. "The Naturgemälde showed for the first time that nature was a global force with corresponding climate zones across continents."[73]

Isothermal map of the world using Humboldt's data by William Channing Woodbridge.

By his delineation (in 1817) of isothermal lines, he at once suggested the idea and devised the means of comparing the climatic conditions of various countries. He first investigated the rate of decrease in mean temperature with the increase in elevation above sea level, and afforded, by his inquiries regarding the origin of tropical storms, the earliest clue to the detection of the more complicated law governing atmospheric disturbances in higher latitudes.[74] This was a major contribution to climatology.[75]

His discovery of the decrease in intensity of Earth's magnetic field from the poles to the equator was communicated to the Paris Institute in a memoir read by him on 7 December 1804. Its importance was attested by the speedy emergence of rival claims.

His services to geology were based on his attentive study of the volcanoes of the Andes and Mexico, which he observed and sketched, climbed, and measured with a variety of instruments. By climbing Chimborazo, he established an altitude record which became the basis for measurement of other volcanoes in the Andes and the Himalayas. As with other aspects of his investigations, he developed methods to show his synthesized results visually, using the graphic method of geologic-cross sections.[76] He showed that volcanoes fell naturally into linear groups, presumably corresponding with vast subterranean fissures; and by his demonstration of the igneous origin of rocks previously held to be of aqueous formation, he contributed largely to the elimination of erroneous views, such as Neptunism.

Humboldt was a significant contributor to cartography, creating maps, particularly of New Spain, that became the template for later mapmakers in Mexico. His careful recording of latitude and longitude led to accurate maps of Mexico, the port of Acapulco, the port of Veracruz, and the Valley of Mexico, and a map showing trade patterns among continents. His maps also included schematic information on geography, converting areas of administrative districts (intendancies) using proportional squares.[77] The U.S. was keen to see his maps and statistics on New Spain, since they had implication for territorial claims following the Louisiana Purchase.[78] Later in life, Humboldt published three volumes (1836–39) examining sources that dealt with the early voyages to the Americas, pursuing his interest in nautical astronomy in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. His research yielded the origin of the name "America", put on a map of the Americas by Martin Waldseemüller.[79]

Humboldt's depiction of a gryphus vulture, an example of his detailed drawing.

Humboldt conducted a census of the indigenous and European inhabitants in New Spain, publishing a schematized drawing of racial types and populations distribution, grouping them by region and social characteristics.[80] He estimated the population to be six million individuals.[81][82] He estimated Indians to be forty percent of New Spain's population, but their distribution being uneven; the most dense were in the center and south of Mexico, the least dense in the north. He presented these data in chart form, for easier understanding.[83] He also surveyed the non-Indian population, categorized as Whites (Spaniards), Negroes, and castes (castas).[84] American-born Spaniards, so-called creoles had been painting depictions of mixed-race family groupings in the eighteenth century, showing father of one racial category, mother of another, and the offspring in a third category in hierarchical order, so racial hierarchy was an essential way elites viewed Mexican society.[85] Although American-born Spaniards were legally racial equals of those born in Spain, crown policy since the Bourbons took the Spanish throne privileged those born in Iberia. Humboldt observed that "the most miserable European, without education and without intellectual cultivation, thinks himself superior to whites born in the new continent."[86] The enmity between the creoles and the peninsular-born whites increasingly became an issue in the late period of Spanish rule, with creoles increasingly alienated from the crown. Humboldt's assessment was that abuses royal government and the example of a new model of rule in the United States were eroded the unity of whites in New Spain.[87]

One scholar says that his writings contain fantastical descriptions of America, while leaving out its inhabitants, stating that Humboldt, coming from the Romantic school of thought, believed '... nature is perfect till man deforms it with care.'[88] The further assessment is that he largely neglected the human societies amidst nature. Views of indigenous peoples as 'savage' or 'unimportant' leaves them out of the historical picture.[88] Other scholars counter that Humboldt dedicated large parts of his work to describing the conditions of slaves, indigenous peoples, mixed-race castas, and society in general. He often showed his disgust for the slavery[89] and inhumane conditions in which indigenous peoples and others were treated and he often criticised Spanish colonial policies.[90]

Humboldt was not primarily an artist, but he could draw well, allowing him to record a visual record of particular places and their natural environment. Many of his drawings became the basis for illustrations of his many scientific and general publications. Artists whom Humboldt influenced, such as Johann Moritz Rugendas, followed in his path and painted the same places Humboldt had visited and recorded, such as the basalt formations in Mexico, which was an illustration in his Vues des Cordillères.[91][92]

The editing and publication of the encyclopedic mass of scientific, political and archaeological material that had been collected by him during his absence from Europe was now Humboldt's most urgent desire. After a short trip to Italy with Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac for the purpose of investigating the law of magnetic declination and a stay of two and a half years in Berlin, in the spring of 1808, he settled in Paris in 1808. His purpose for being located there was to secure the scientific cooperation required for bringing his great work through the press. This colossal task, which he at first hoped would occupy but two years, eventually cost him twenty-one, and even then it remained incomplete.

Scholarly and Public Recognition

An 1815 self-portrait of Humboldt (aged 45)

During his lifetime Humboldt became one of the most famous men in Europe.[93] Academies, both native and foreign, were eager to elect him to their membership, the first being The American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, which he visited at the tail end of his travel through the Americas. He was elected to the Prussian Academy of Sciences in 1805.[94] Over the years other learned societies in the U.S. elected him a member, including the American Antiquarian Society (Boston) in 1816;[95] the New York Historical Society in 1820; a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1822.;[96] the American Ethnological Society (New York) in 143; and the American Geographical and Statistical Society, (New York) in 1856.[97] He was elected a foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in 1810. The Royal Society, whose president Sir Joseph Banks had aided Humboldt as a young man, now welcomed him as a foreign member.[98]

After Mexican independence from Spain in 1821, the Mexican government recognized him with high honors for his services to the nation. In 1827, the first President of Mexico, Guadalupe Victoria granted Humboldt Mexican citizenship[99] and in 1859, the President of Mexico, Benito Juárez, named Humboldt a hero of the nation (benemérito de la nación).[100] The gestures were purely honorary; he never returned to the Americas following his expedition.

Importantly for Humboldt's long term financial stability, King Frederick William III of Prussia conferred upon him the honor of the post of royal chamderlain, without at the time exacting the duties. The appointment had a pension of 2,500 thalers, afterwards doubled. This official stipend became his main source of income in later years when he exhausted his fortune on the publications of his research. Financial necessity forced his permanent relocation to Berlin in 1827 from Paris. In Paris he found not only scientific sympathy, but the social stimulus which his vigorous and healthy mind eagerly craved. He was equally in his element as the lion of the salons and as the savant of the Institut de France and the observatory.

On 12 May 1827, he settled permanently in Berlin, where his first efforts were directed towards the furtherance of the science of terrestrial magnetism. In 1827, he began giving public lectures in Berlin, which became the basis for his last major publication, Kosmos (1845–62).[101]

For many years, it had been one of his favorite schemes to secure, by means of simultaneous observations at distant points, a thorough investigation of the nature and law of "magnetic storms" (a term invented by him to designate abnormal disturbances of Earth's magnetism). The meeting at Berlin, on 18 September 1828, of a newly formed scientific association, of which he was elected president, gave him the opportunity of setting on foot an extensive system of research in combination with his diligent personal observations. His appeal to the Russian government, in 1829, led to the establishment of a line of magnetic and meteorological stations across northern Asia. Meanwhile, his letter to the Duke of Sussex, then (April 1836) president of the Royal Society, secured for the undertaking, the wide basis of the British dominions.

The Encyclopædia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, observes, "Thus that scientific conspiracy of nations which is one of the noblest fruits of modern civilization was by his exertions first successfully organized". However, earlier examples of international scientific cooperation exist, notably the 18th-century observations of the transits of Venus.

Expedition in Russia, 1829

Alexander von Humboldt, portrait by W. Pickersgill (1831)

In 1811, and again in 1818, projects of Asiatic exploration were proposed to Humboldt, first by Czar Nicolas I's Russian government, and afterwards by the Prussian government; but on each occasion, untoward circumstances interposed. It was not until he had begun his sixtieth year that he resumed his early role of traveler in the interests of science.

The Russian Foreign Minister, Count Georg Cancrin contacted Humboldt about whether a platinum-based currency was possible in Russia and invited him to visit the Ural Mountains. Humboldt was not encouraging about a platinum-based currency, when silver was the standard as a world currency. But the invitation to visit the Urals was intriguing. The Russians sought to entice Humboldt by engaging his enduring interest in mining sites, for comparative scientific purposes for Humboldt, but for the Russians to gain expert knowledge about their resources. For Humboldt, the Russian monarch's promise to fund the trip was extremely important, since Humboldt's inherited 100,000 thaler fortune was gone and he lived on the Prussian government pension of 2,500-3,000 thalers as the monarch's chamberlain. Humboldt was eager to travel not just to the Urals, but also across the steppes of Siberia to Russia's border with China. Humboldt wrote Cancrin saying that he intended to learn Russian to read mining journals in the language.[102] As the details of the expedition were worked out, Humboldt said that he would travel to Russia in his own French coach, with a German servant, as well as Gustav Rose, a professor of chemistry and mineralogy. He also invited Christian Gottfried Ehrenberg to join the expedition, to study water micro-organisms in Lake Baikal and the Caspian Sea. Humboldt himself was keen to continue his studies of magnetism of mountains and mineral deposits. As was usual for his research, he brought scientific instruments to take the most accurate instruments.[103]

Physically Humboldt was in good condition, despite his advancing years, saying "I still walk very lightly on foot, nine to ten hours without resting, despite my age and my white hair."[104]

Between May and November 1829, he and the growing expedition traversed the wide expanse of the Russian empire from the Neva to the Yenesei, accomplishing in twenty-five weeks a distance of 9,614 miles (15,472 km). Humboldt and the expedition party traveled by coach on well maintained roads, with rapid progress being made because of changes of horses at way stations. The party had grown, with Johann Seifert, who was a huntsman and collector of animal specimens; a Russian mining official; Count Adolphe Polier, one of Humboldt's friends from Paris; a cook; plus a contingent of Cossacks for security. Three carriages were filled with people, supplies, and scientific instruments. For Humboldt's magnetic readings to be accurate, they carried an iron-free tent.[105] This expedition was unlike his Spanish American travels with Bonpland, with the two sometimes accompanied by local guides.

The Russian government was interested in Humboldt finding prospects for scientific and commercial advancement of the realm and made it clear that Humboldt was not to investigate social issues, nor criticize social conditions of Russian serfs. In his publications on Spanish America, he did comment on the conditions of the indigenous populations, and deplored black slavery, but well after he had left those territories.[106] As Humboldt discovered, the government kept tight control of the expedition, even when it was 1,000 miles from Moscow, with local government officials greeting the expedition at every stop. The itinerary was planned with Tobolsk the farthest destination, then a return to St Petersburg. Humboldt wrote to the Russian Minister Cancrin that he was extending his travel, knowing that the missive would not reach him in time to scuttle the plan. The further east he journeyed into wilder territory, the more Humboldt enjoyed it. They still followed the Siberian Highway and made excellent progress, sometimes a hundred miles in a day.[107] Although they were halted at the end of July and warned of an anthrax outbreak, Humboldt decided to continue despite the danger. "At my age, nothing should be postponed."[108]

The journey though carried out with all the advantages afforded by the immediate patronage of the Russian government, was too rapid to be profitable scientifically. The correction of the prevalent exaggerated estimate of the height of the Central Asian plateau, and the prediction of the discovery of diamonds in the gold-washings of the Urals, were important aspects of these travels.

Humboldt published two works on the Russian expedition, first Fragmens de géologie et de la climatologie asiastique in 1831, based on lectures he gave on the topic. In 1843, he completed the longer Asie Centrale. As of 2016, these work have not been translated to English.[109] His 1829 expedition to Russia when he was an old man is much less known than his five-year travels in Spanish America, which had resulted in many published volumes over the decades since his 1804 return.


Photograph of Humboldt in his later years

Kosmos was Humboldt's multi-volume effort in his later years to write a work bringing together all the research from his long career. The writing took shape in lectures he delivered before the University of Berlin in the winter of 1827–28. These lectures would form "the cartoon for the great fresco of the [K]osmos".[110] His 1829 expedition to Russia supplied him with data comparative to his Latin American expedition.[111]

The first two volumes of the Kosmos were published between the years 1845 and 1847 were intended to comprise the entire work, but Humboldt published three more volumes, one of which was posthumous. Humboldt had long aimed to write a comprehensive work about geography and the natural sciences. The work attempted to unify the sciences then known in a Kantian framework. With inspiration from German Romanticism, Humboldt sought to create a compendium of the world's environment.[6] He spent the last decade of his long life — as he called them, his "improbable" years — continuing this work. The third and fourth volumes were published in 1850–58; a fragment of a fifth appeared posthumously in 1862.

His reputation had long since been made with his publications on the Latin American expedition. There is not a consensus on the importance of Kosmos. One scholar, who stresses the importance of Humboldt's Political Essay on the Kingdom of New Spain as essential reading, dismisses Kosmos as "little more than an academic curiosity."[112] A different opinion is that Kosmos was his "most influential book."[113]

As with most of Humboldt's works, Kosmos was also translated into multiple languages in editions of uneven quality. It very popular in Britain and America. In 1849 a German newspaper commented that in England two of the three different translations were made by women, "while in Germany most of the men do not understand it."[114] The first translation by Augustin Pritchard — published anonymously by Mr. Baillière (volume I in 1845 and volume II in 1848) — suffered from being hurriedly made. In a letter Humboldt said of it: "It will damage my reputation. All the charm of my description is destroyed by an English sounding like Sanskrit."[citation needed]

The other two translations were made by Mrs. Sabine under the superintendence of her husband Col. Edward Sabine (4 volumes 1846–1858), and by Miss E.C. Otté (5 volumes 1849–1858, the only complete translation of the 4 German volumes). These three translations were also published in America. The numbering of the volumes differs between the German and the English editions. Volume 3 of the German edition corresponds to the volumes 3 and 4 of the English translation, as the German volume appeared in 2 parts in 1850 and 1851. Volume 5 of the German edition was not translated until 1981, again by a woman.[115] Miss Otté's translation benefited from a detailed table of contents, and an index for every volume; of the German edition only volumes 4 and 5 had (extremely short) tables of contents, and the index to the whole work only appeared with volume 5 in 1862. Less well known in Germany is the atlas belonging to the German edition of the Cosmos "Berghaus' Physikalischer Atlas", better known as the pirated version by Traugott Bromme under the title "Atlas zu Alexander von Humboldt's Kosmos" (Stuttgart 1861).[citation needed]

In Britain, Heinrich Berghaus planned to publish together with Alexander Keith Johnston a "Physical Atlas". But later Johnston published it alone under the title "The Physical Atlas of Natural Phenomena". In Britain its connection to the Cosmos seems not have been recognized.[116]

Influence on Scientists and Artists

Humboldt was generous toward his friends and mentored young scientists. He and Bonpland parted ways after their return to Europe, and Humboldt largely took on the task of publishing the results of their Latin American expedition at Humboldt's expense, but he included Bonpland as co-author on the nearly published 30 volumes. Bonpland returned to Latin America, settling in Buenos Aires, Argentina, then moved to the countryside near the border with Paraguay. The forces of Dr. José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia, the strong man of Paraguay, abducted Bonpland after killing Bonpland's estate workers. Bonpland was accused of "agricultural espionage" and of threatening Paraguay's virtual monopoly on the cultivation of yerba mate. Despite international pressure, including the British government and Simón Bolívar's, along with European scientists including Humboldt, Francia kept Bonpland prisoner until 1831. He was released after nearly 10 years in Paraguay. Humboldt and Bonpland maintained a warm correspondence about science and politics until Bonpland's death in 1858.[117]

During Humboldt's time in Paris, he met in 1818 the young and brilliant Peruvian student of the Royal Mining School of Paris, Mariano Eduardo de Rivero y Ustariz. Subsequently Humboldt acted as a mentor of the career of this promising Peruvian scientist. Another recipient of Humboldt's aid was Louis Agassiz (1807–73) was directly aided with needed cash from Humboldt, assistance in securing an academic position, and help with getting his research on zoology published. Agassiz sent him copies of his publications and went on to gain considerable scientific recognition as a professor at Harvard.[118] Agassiz delivered an address to the Boston Society of Natural History in 1869, on the centenary of his patron's birth.[119] When Humboldt was an elderly man, he aided another young scholar, Gotthold Eisenstein, a brilliant, young, Jewish mathematician in Berlin, for whom he obtained a small crown pension and nominated for the Academy of Science.[120]

Humboldt's popular writings inspired many scientists and naturalists, including Charles Darwin, Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, George Perkins Marsh, Ernst Haeckel,[121] as well as brothers Richard Schomburgk and Robert Schomburgk.[122]

Charles Darwin made frequent reference to Humboldt's work in his Voyage of the Beagle, where Darwin described his own scientific exploration of the Americas. In one note, he placed Humboldt first on the "list of American travellers".[123]

When this Journal was published, Darwin sent a copy to Humboldt, who responded "You told me in your kind letter that, when you were young, the manner in which I studied and depicted nature in the torrid zones contributed toward exciting in you the ardour and desire to travel in distant lands. Considering the importance of your work, Sir, this may be the greatest success that my humble work could bring."[124] In his autobiography, Darwin recalled reading "with care and profound interest Humboldt's Personal Narrative" and finding it one of the two most influential books on his work, which had "stirred up in me a burning zeal to add even the most humble contribution to the noble structure of Natural Science."[125]

A number of nineteenth-century artists traveled to Latin America, following in the footsteps of Humboldt, painting landscapes and scenes of everyday life. Johann Moritz Rugendas, Ferdinand Bellermann, and Eduard Hildebrandt were three important European painters.[126] Frederic Edwin Church was the most famous landscape painter in the U.S. in the nineteenth century. His paintings of Andean volcanoes that Humboldt climbed helped make Church's reputation. His 5 foot by 10 foot painting entitled Heart of the Andes "caused a sensation" when it was completed. Church had hoped to ship the painting to Berlin to show the painting to Humboldt, but Humboldt died a few days after Church's letter was written.[127][128][129][130] Church painted Cotopaxi three times, twice in 1855 and then in 1859 in eruption.


Other Aspects of Humboldt's life and career

Humboldt and the Prussian monarchy

Humboldt's seal on a private letter

In the Napoleonic wars, Prussia had capitulated to France, signing the Treaty of Tilsit. The Prussian royal family returned to Berlin, but sought better terms of the treaty and Friedrich Wilhelm III commissioned his younger brother Prince Wilhelm with this. Friedrich Wilhelm III asked Alexander to be part of the mission, charged with introducing the prince to Paris society. This turn of events for Humboldt could not have been better, since he desired to live in Paris rather than Berlin.[132]

In 1814 Humboldt accompanied the allied sovereigns to London. Three years later he was summoned by the king of Prussia to attend him at the congress of Aachen. Again in the autumn of 1822 he accompanied the same monarch to the Congress of Verona, proceeded thence with the royal party to Rome and Naples and returned to Paris in the spring of 1823. Humboldt had long regarded Paris as his true home. Thus, when at last he received from his sovereign a summons to join his court at Berlin, he obeyed reluctantly.

Between 1830 and 1848 Humboldt was frequently employed in diplomatic missions to the court of King Louis Philippe of France, with whom he always maintained the most cordial personal relations. Charles X of France had been overthrown, with Louis-Philippe of the house of Orléan becoming king. Humboldt knew the family, and he was sent by the Prussian monarch to Paris to report on events to his monarch. He spent three years in France, from 1830 to 1833. His friends François Arago and Guillaume Guizot, who were appointed to posts in Louis-Philippe's government.[133]

Humboldt's brother, Wilhelm, died on 8 April 1835. Alexander lamented that he had lost half of himself with the death of his brother. Upon the accession of the crown prince Frederick William IV in June 1840, Humboldt's favor at court increased. Indeed, the new king's craving for Humboldt's company became at times so importunate as to leave him only a few waking hours to work on his writing.


Because Humboldt did not mention God in his work Cosmos, and sometimes spoke unfavourably of hypocritical religious attitudes, it was occasionally speculated that he was a materialist philosopher, or perhaps an atheist.[134] However, unlike irreligious figures such as Robert G. Ingersoll, who went so far as to use Humboldtian science to campaign against religion,[135] Humboldt himself denied imputations of atheism. In a letter to Varnhagen von Ense he emphasized that he believed the world had indeed been created, writing of Cosmos: "...'creation' and the 'created world' are never lost sight of in the book. And did I not, only eight months ago, in the French translation, say, in the plainest terms: 'It is this necessity of things, this occult but permanent connection, this periodical return in the progress, development of formation, phenomena, and events which constitute 'Nature' submissive to a controlling power?'"[136]

It has been argued that "although Humboldt emphasizes the basis of morality in the nature of man, he does acknowledge that a belief in God is linked directly to acts of virtue" and therefore "the dignity of man lies at the centre of Humboldt's religious thought."[137]

Humboldt also believed firmly in an afterlife.[138] A letter he wrote to his friend Charlotte Hildebrand Diede states: "God constantly appoints the course of nature and of circumstances; so that, including his existence in an eternal future, the happiness of the individual does not perish, but on the contrary grows and increases."[139]

Humboldt remained distant of organized religion: he did not believe in the Bible as an inerrant document, nor in the divinity of Jesus; yet, Humboldt still held deep respect for the ideal side of religious belief and church life within human communities.[140] He differentiated between "negative" religions, and those "all positive religions [which] consist of three distinct parts — a code of morals which is nearly the same in all of them, and generally very pure; a geological chimera, and a myth or a little historical novel."[141] In Cosmos, he wrote about how rich geological descriptions were found in different religious traditions, and stated:"Christianity gradually diffused itself, and, wherever it was adopted as the religion of the state, it not only exercised a beneficial condition on the lower classes by inculcating the social freedom of mankind, but also expanded the views of men in their communion with Nature...this tendency to glorify the Deity in his works gave rise to a taste for natural observation."|[142]

Humboldt showed religious tolerance towards Judaism, and he criticized the political Jews Bill, which was an initiative intended to establish legal discrimination against Jews. He called this an "abominable" law, since he hoped to see Jews being treated equally in society.[143]

Personal life

Alexander von Humboldt in his library in his Oranienburger Strasse, Berlin apartment, by Eduard Hildebrandt
Portrait of Humboldt by Julius Schrader, 1859. Metropolitan Museum of Art

Much of Humboldt's private life remains a mystery because he destroyed his private letters. While a gregarious personality, he may have harbored a sense of social alienation, which drove his passion for escape through travel.[144]

Humboldt never married: while he was charmed by a number of attractive women, including Henriette, the wife of his mentor Marcus Herz, his sister-in-law Caroline von Humboldt stated "nothing will ever have a great influence on Alexander that doesn't come through men."[145] His life was marked by a pattern of intense male friendships, which sometimes tipped over into romantic passion.[146]

As a student he became infatuated with Wilhelm Gabriel Wegener, a theology student, penning a succession of letters expressing his "fervent love".[147] At 25 he met Reinhardt von Haeften, a 21 year old lieutenant, with whom he lived and travelled with for two years, and to whom he wrote in 1794: "I only live through you, my good precious Reinhardt." When von Haeften became engaged, Humboldt begged to remain living with him and his wife: "Even if you must refuse me, treat me coldly with disdain, I should still want to be with you...the love I have for you is not just friendship or brotherly love, it is veneration"[148]

A travelling companion in the Americas for five years was Aimé Bonpland, and in Quito in 1802 he met the Ecuadorian aristocrat Don Carlos Montúfar, who travelled with Humboldt to Europe and lived with him. In France, Humboldt travelled and lived with the physicist and balloonist Joseph Louis Gay Lussac. Later he had a deep friendship with the married French astronomer François Arago, whom he met daily for 15 years.[149]

Humboldt once wrote "I don't know sensual needs."[145] However, a pious travelling companion, Francisco José de Caldas, accused him of frequenting houses in Quito where "impure love reigned", of making friends with "obscene dissolute youths", of giving vent to "shameful passions of his heart", and dropping him to travel with "Bonpland and his Adonis"[Monúfar].[150]

Humboldt inherited a significant fortune, but the expense of his travels, and most especially of publishing (thirty volumes in all), had by 1834 made him totally reliant on the pension of King Frederick William III.[151] Although he preferred living in Paris, by 1836 the King had insisted he return to Germany. He lived with the Court at Sans Souci, and latterly in Berlin, with his valet Seifert, who had accompanied him to Russia in 1829.[152]

Signature of Humboldt late in life, when his handwriting became increasingly difficult to read

Four years before his death, Humboldt executed a deed of gift transferring his entire estate to the dominating Seifert,[153][154] who had by then married and set up a household near Humboldt's apartment. Humboldt had become godfather to his daughter.[155] The scale of the bequest has always drawn speculation, especially as Seifert was some thirty years younger, and introducing lower class partners into households under the guise of servants was then a common practice.[156]

In 1908, the sexual researcher Paul Näcke gathered reminiscences from homosexuals[157] including Humboldt's friend the botanist Karl Bolle, then 90 years old: some of the material was incorporated by Magnus Hirschfeld into his 1914 study Homosexuality in Men and Women.[158] However, speculations about Humboldt's private life and possible homosexuality continue to remain a fractious issue amongst scholars, particularly as earlier biographers had portrayed him as "a largely asexual, Christ-like Humboldt figure...suitable as a national idol."[159]

Illness and death

On 24 February 1857, Humboldt suffered a minor stroke, which passed without perceptible symptoms.[citation needed] It was not until the winter of 1858–1859 that his strength began to decline; on 6 May 1859, he died peacefully in Berlin, aged 89. His last words were reported to be "How glorious these sunbeams are! They seem to call Earth to the Heavens!"[160] His remains were conveyed in state through the streets of Berlin, in a hearse drawn by six horses. Royal chamberlains led the cortege, with charged with carrying a pillow with Humboldt's medals and other decorations of honor. Humboldt's extended family, descendants of his brother Wilhelm, walked in the procession. Humboldt's coffin was received by the prince-regent at the door of the cathedral. He was interred at the family resting-place at Tegel, along side his brother Wilhelm and sister-in-law Caroline.[161]


Alexander von Humboldt published prolifically throughout his life. Many works were published originally in French or German, then translated to other languages, sometimes with competing translation editions. Humboldt himself did not keep track of all the various editions.[162] He wrote specialized works on particular topics of botany, zoology, astronomy, mineralogy, among others, but he also wrote general works that attracted a wide readership, especially his Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent during the years 1799-1804[163] His Political Essay on the Kingdom of New Spain was widely read in Mexico itself, the United States, as well as in Europe.[164]

Many of the original works have been digitally scanned by the Biodiversity Library.[165] There have been new editions of print works, including his Views of the Cordilleras and Monuments of the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas (2014), which includes reproductions of all the color and black and white plates. In the original edition, the publication was in a large format and quite expensive.[166] There is a 2009 translation of his Geography of Plants[167] and a 2014 English edition of Views of Nature.[168]

Scientific works

Le voyage aux régions equinoxiales du Nouveau Continent, fait en 1799–1804, par Alexandre de Humboldt et Aimé Bonpland (Paris, 1807, etc.), consisted of thirty folio and quarto volumes, including:

Other works

Honours and namesakes

The honours which had been showered on Humboldt during life continued after his death. The first centenary of Humboldt's birth was celebrated on 14 September 1869, with great enthusiasm in both the New and Old Worlds. Numerous monuments were constructed in his honour, such as Humboldt Park in Chicago, planned that year and constructed shortly after the Chicago fire. Newly explored regions and species named after Humboldt, as discussed below, also stand as a measure of his wide fame and popularity.

Species named after Humboldt

Humboldt described many geographical features and species that were hitherto unknown to Europeans. Species named after him include:

Geographical features named after Humboldt

Features named after him include:[172]

Places named after Humboldt

The following places are named for Humboldt:[173]

Astronomical features

Universities, colleges, and schools



Lecture series

Alexander von Humboldt also lends his name to a prominent lecture series in Human geography in the Netherlands (hosted by the Radboud University Nijmegen). It is the Dutch equivalent of the widely known annual Hettner lectures at the University of Heidelberg.

The Alexander von Humboldt Foundation

After his death, Humboldt's friends and colleagues created the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation (Stiftung in German) to continue his generous support of young academics. Although the original endowment was lost in the German hyperinflation of the 1920s, and again as a result of World War II, the Foundation has been re-endowed by the German government to award young academics and distinguished senior academics from abroad. It plays an important role in attracting foreign researchers to work in Germany and enabling German researchers to work abroad for a period.


Edgar Allan Poe dedicated his last major work, Eureka: A Prose Poem, to Humboldt. Humboldt's attempt to unify the sciences in his Kosmos was a big inspiration for Poe's project.


Alexander von Humboldt is also a German ship named after the scientist originally built in 1906 by the German shipyard AG Weser at Bremen as Reserve Sonderburg. She was operated throughout the North and Baltic Seas until being retired in 1986. Subsequently she was converted into a three masted barque by the German shipyard Motorwerke Bremerhaven and was re-launched in 1988 as Alexander von Humboldt.

Recognitions by contemporaries

Simón Bolívar wrote that "The real discoverer of South America was Humboldt, since his work was more useful for our people than the work of all conquerors."[175] Charles Darwin expressed his debt to Humboldt, and admiration for his work,[176] writing to Joseph Dalton Hooker that Humboldt was the "greatest scientific traveller who ever lived".[177] Wilhelm von Humboldt wrote that "Alexander is destined to combine ideas and follow chains of thoughts which would otherwise have remained unknown for ages. His depth, his sharp mind and his incredible speed are a rare combination." Johann Wolfgang von Goethe observed that "Humboldt showers us with true treasures." Friedrich von Schiller wrote that "Alexander impresses many, particularly when compared to his brother - because he shows off more!" José de la Luz y Caballero wrote that "Columbus gave Europe a New World; Humboldt made it known in its physical, material, intellectual, and moral aspects." Napoléon Bonaparte remarked "You have been studying Botanics? Just like my wife!" Claude Louis Berthollet said "This man is as knowledgeable as a whole academy." Thomas Jefferson remarked "I consider him the most important scientist whom I have met." Emil Du Bois-Reymond wrote that "Every scientist is a descendant of Humboldt. We are all his family." Robert G. Ingersoll wrote that "He was to science what Shakespeare was to the drama."[178]

Hermann von Helmholtz wrote that "During the first half of the present century we had an Alexander von Humboldt, who was able to scan the scientific knowledge of his time in its details, and to bring it within one vast generalization. At the present juncture, it is obviously very doubtful whether this task could be accomplished in a similar way, even by a mind with gifts so peculiarly suited for the purpose as Humboldt's was, and if all his time and work were devoted to the purpose."[179]

Biographies and studies of his work

  • D.A. Brading, The First America: The Spanish Monarchy, Creole Patriots, and the Liberal State 1492-1867, Chapter 23, "Scientific Traveller." Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1991.
  • Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra, "How Derivative was Humboldt?" In Colonial Botany: Science, Commerce, and Politics in the Early Modern World, edited by Londa Schiebinder and Claudia Swan, 148-65. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press 2005.
  • Helmut de Terra. Humboldt: The Life and Times of Alexander von Humboldt, 1769-1859. New York: Alfred A. Knopf 1955.
  • Michael Dettlebach, "Humboldtian Science." In Cultures of Natural History, edited by Nicholas Jardin, J.A. Secord, and Emma C. Spary, 287-304. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1996.
  • Anne Godlewska,, "From Enlightenment Vision to Modern Science? Humboldt's Visual Thinking." In Geography and Enlightenment, edited by David N. Livingstone and Charles W. J. Withers, 236-75. Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1999.
  • William Macgillivray. The travels and researches of Alexander von Humboldt by W. Macgillivray; with a narrative of Humboldt's most recent researches New York: J & J Harper 1833.
  • W. Macgillivray. The travels and researches of Alexander von Humboldt: being a condensed narrative of his journeys in the equinoctial regions of America, and in Asiatic Russia: together with analysis of his more important investigations
  • Gerard Helferich. Humboldt's Cosmos: Alexander von Humboldt and the Latin American Journey that Changed the World (Gotham Books, 2004)
  • José Miranda, Humboldt y México. Mexico City: Instituto de Historia, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México 1962.
  • David McCullough's book, Brave Companions: Portraits in History, Chapter 1, "[Humboldt's] Journey to the Top of the World" (Prentice Hall Press, 1992).
  • Nicolaas A. Rupke. Alexander von Humboldt: A Metabiography (University of Chicago Press, 2008)
  • Aaron Sachs. The Humboldt Current: Nineteenth Century Exploration and the Roots of American Environmentalism New York: Viking, 2006
  • Laura Dassow Walls. The Passage to Cosmos: Alexander von Humboldt and the Shaping of America (2009)
  • Andrea Wulf. The Invention of Nature: The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt, the Lost Hero of Science (John Murray, 2015) ISBN 9781848548985

Literary works

Daniel Kehlmann's 2005 novel Die Vermessung der Welt, translated into English by Carol Brown Janeway as Measuring the World in 2006, explores Humboldt's life through a lens of historical fiction, contrasting his character and contributions to science to those of Carl Friedrich Gauss.

See also


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  3. Jackson, Stephen T. "Alexander von Humboldt and the General Physics of the Earth" (PDF). Science. 324. pp. 596–597.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
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  7. 7.0 7.1 Hermann Klencke, Gustav Schlesier, Lives of the brothers Humboldt, Alexander and William New York (1853), p. 13.
  8. Helmut de Terra, Humboldt: The Life and Times of Alexander von Humboldt, 1769-1859. New York: Alfred A. Knopf 1955, p.3.
  9. Terra, Humboldt, pp. 4-5.
  10. Terra, Humboldt, p. 5
  11. Terra, Humboldt, pp. 6-7.
  12. Malcolm Nicolson, "Historical Introduction", Personal Narrative of a Journey to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent by Alexander von Humboldt. London: Penguin Books 1995, p. xvi.
  13. Andrea Wulf, The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New World. New York: Alfred A. Knopf 2015, p. 13, 17.
  14. Wulf, The Invention of Nature, p. 17.
  15. Nicolson, "Historical Introduction", p. xvi
  16. 16.0 16.1 Wulf, The Invention of Nature, p. 18.
  17. Nicolson, "Historical Introduction" pp. xvi-xv
  18. Nicolson, "Historical Introduction" p. xv
  19. Nicolson, "Historical Introduction", p. xv.
  20. Wulf, The Invention of Nature, p. 76, 136.
  21. Jason Wilson, "Alexander von Humboldt: A Chronology from 1769 to 1859" in Personal Narrative of A Journey to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent by Alexander von Humboldt. London: Penguin Books 1995, p. lxvii.
  22. 22.0 22.1 De Terra, Humboldt, p. 51.
  23. 23.0 23.1 De Terra, Humboldt, p. 53.
  24. De Terra, Humboldt, p. pp.54-55.
  25. Wilson, "Alexander von Humboldt: A Chronology", p. lxvii.
  26. De Terra, Humboldt, pp. 18, 57.
  27. Wulf, The Invention of Nature, p. 39.
  28. Carl Freiesleben quoted in Wulf, The Invention of Nature, p. 39.
  29. De Terra, Alexander von Humboldt, p. 80.
  30. 30.0 30.1 30.2 De Terra, Alexander von Humboldt, p. 83.
  31. Ida Altman, Sarah Cline, Javier Pescador, The Early History of Greater Mexico. Prentice Hall, 2003, pp. 300-317.
  32. D.A. Brading, The First America: The Spanish Monarchy, Creole Patriots, and the Liberal State, 1492-1867. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1991, p. 517.
  33. Daniela Bleichmar, Visible Empire: Botanical Expeditions & Visual Culture in the Hispanic Enlightenment. Chicago: University of Chicago Press 2014, 5.
  34. Bleichmar, Visible Empire, p. 19.
  35. Casimiro Gómez Ortega, Instrucción sobre el modo más seguro y económico de transportar plantas vivas por mar y tierra a los países más distantes ilustrada con láminas. Añadese el método de desacar las plants para formar herbarios (Madrid 1779). Biblioteca del Real Jardín Botánico, Madrid, cited in Bleichmar, Visible Empires, pp. 26-27.
  36. 36.0 36.1 Brading, The First America, p. 517.
  37. De Terra, Alexander von Humboldt, pp. 91-92.
  38. F.J. de Pons. Voyage à la partie orientale de la Terre-Ferme, dans l'Amérique Méridionale, fait pendant les années 1801, 1802, 1803 et 1804 : contenant la description de la capitainerie générale de Carácas, composée des provinces de Vénézuéla, Maracaïbo, Varinas, la Guiane Espagnole, Cumana, et de l'île de la Marguerite .... Paris: Colnet 1806. It was also published in English the same year.
  39. Brading, The First America, p. 518.
  40. De Terra, Alexander von Humboldt, pp. 232-33.
  41. Mark Forsyth. The etymologicon. Icon Books Ltd. London N79DP, (2011), p. 123.
  42. Wulf, The Invention of Nature, pp. 62-63. Wulf's book includes a picture of the encounter (p. 63), she captions "The battle between horses and electric eels."
  43. cited in Wulf, The Invention of Nature, p. 362, n. 62.
  44. Humboldt, Alexander von. Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of America During the Years 1799-1804, Chapter 25. Henry G. Bohn, London, 1853.
  45. "Alexander von Humboldt Chronology", in Personal Narrative of A Journey to the Equinocital Regions of the New Continent by Alexander von Humboldt. New York: Penguin Classics 1995, lxviii.
  46. Brendel, Frederick, Historical Sketch of the Science of Botany in North America from 1635 to 1840, The American Naturalist, 13:12 (December 1879), pp. 754–71, The University of Chicago Press; accessed 31 July 2012.
  47. De Terra, Alexander von Humboldt, pp. 116-17.
  48. 48.0 48.1 "Alexander von Humboldt Chronology", p. lxix.
  49. Bleichmar, Visible Empire, p. 190.
  50. Alexander von Humboldt and Aimé Bonpland, Plantes équinoxiles, in Voyage de Humboldt et Bonpland, Sixième Partie, Botanique, vo. 1 Paris 1808.
  51. Humboldt's claim was disputed by mountaineer Edward Whymper when he made the first ascent of Chimborazo in 1880.Whymper, Edward (1892). Travels amongst the Great Andes of the Equator. John Murray. pp. 30–32.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  52. Muratta Bunsen, Eduardo, "El conflicto entre eurocentrismo y empatía en la literatura de viajes de Humboldt." Revista Andina 50 (2010), pp. 247-262; ISSN 0259-9600
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  54. De Terra, Alexander von Humboldt, p. 149-150.
  55. De Terra, Alexander von Humboldt, p. 156.
  56. Plano físico de la Nueva España, Perfil del Camino de Acapulco a Mégico [sic], y de Mégico a Veracruz. Chart is published in Magali M. Carrera, Traveling from New Spain to Mexico: Mapping Practices of Nineteenth-century Mexico, Durham: Duke University Press 2011, p.70, plate 18.
  57. Alexander von Humboldt, Atlás géographique et physique du Royaume de la Nouvelle-Espagne, lxxxiii-lxxiv, quoted in Anne Godlewska, Geography Unbound: French Geographic Science from Cassini to Humboldt. Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1999, p. 257.
  58. Humboldt, Political essay, p. 74.
  59. Brading, The First America, pp. 526-27.
  60. 60.0 60.1 60.2 Brading, The First America, p. 527.
  61. Brading, The First America, p. 525.
  62. De Terra, Alexander von Humboldt, pp. 51, 156.
  63. Brading, The First America, p. 523.
  64. Brading, The First America, pp. 523-525.
  65. Political Essay on the Kingdom of New Spain, (four volumes) translator John Black, London And Edinburgh: Longman, Hurst, Rees Orme and brown; and H. Colborn and W. Blackwood, and Brown and Crombie, Ediburgh 1811.
  66. Benjamin Keen, "Alexander von Humboldt" in Encyclopedia of Mexico. Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn 1997, p. 664.
  67. De Terra, Alexander von Humboldt, pp. 175-76.
  68. Alexander von Humboldt,An illustration of the genus Cinchona :comprising descriptions of all the officinal Peruvian barks, including several new species, Baron de Humboldt's Account of the Cinchona forests of South America, and Laubert's Memoir on the different species of quinquina: to which are added several dissertations of Don Hippolito Ruiz on various medicinal plants of South America
  69. Wulf, The Invention of Nature, pp. 101-02.
  70. Nicolaas Rupke, "A Geography of Enlightenment: The Critical Reception of Alexander von Humboldt's Mexico Work." In Geography and Enlightenment, edited by David N. Livingstone an Charles W.J. Withers, 319-39. Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1999.
  71. Helferich, Gerard. Humboldt's Cosmos (New York: Gotham Books, 2005), p. 25.
  72. Alexander von Humboldt, Personal Narrative of Travels of the Equinocial Regions of the New Continent during Years 1799–1804 (London, 1814), Vol. 1, pp. 34–35
  73. Wulf, The Invention of Nature, p.89. This publication includes Humboldt's first sketch of the Naturgemälde.
  74. Alexander von Humboldt, Des lignes isothermes et de la distribution de la châleur sur le golbe. Paris 1817.
  75. De Terra, Alexander von Humboldt, p. 380.
  76. De Terra, Alexander von Humboldt, pp. 375-76.
  77. Magali M. Carrera, Traveling from New Spain to Mexico: Mapping Practices of Nineteenth-century Mexico. Durham: Duke University Press 2011, pp. 74-75.
  78. De Terra, Alexander von Humboldt, pp. 177-78.
  79. Alexander von Humboldt, Examen critique de l'histoire de la géographie du Nouveau Continent et des progrès de l'astronomie nautique au 15e et 16e siècles. Paris, 1836-39
  80. Carrera, Mapping New Spain, p. 76, reproducing the chart, illustration 23, p. 77.
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  83. Humboldt, Political essay on the Kingdom of New Spain, chapter entitled "Indians".
  84. Humboldt, Political essay, chapter entitled "Whites, Negroes, Castes".
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  90. Alexander von Humboldt: A Metabiography Rupke, Nicolaas A., Peter Lang International Academic Publishers, 2005,ISBN 3631539320, pp138
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  94. De Terra, Alexander von Humboldt, p. 204.
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  103. De Terra, Alexander von Humboldt, p. 287.
  104. Humboldt to Cancrin, quoted in De Terra, Alexander von Humboldt, p. 286.
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  108. quoted in Wulf, The Invention of Nature, p. 207.
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  110. Quoted in Dickinson & Howarth 1933, p.145
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  114. Beilage zu No. 102 der (Augsburger) Allgemeinen Zeitung, 12 April 1849.
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  116. all information from Wolf-Dieter Grün: The English editions of the Kosmos. Lecture at Alexander von Humboldt. Science in Britain and Germany during his lifetime. Joint Symposium of the Royal Society and the German Historical Institute, London, 1 October 1983.
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  163. *Personal narrative of travels to the equinoctial regions of America, during the years 1799–1804/ by Alexander von Humboldt and Aimé Bonpland; translated from the French of Alexander von Humboldt and edited by Thomasina Ross (vols 2 & 3),
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  177. Darwin Correspondence Project " Letter 13277 — Darwin, C. R. to Hooker, J. D., 6 Aug 1881
  178. The Writings of Robert G Ingersoll (Dresden Edition) - C P Farrell (1900)
  179. H. Helmholtz (1869), translated by E. Atkinson, The aim and progress of physical science, in Popular Lectures on Scientific Subjects, 1873

Further reading

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Hey'l, Bettina, Das Ganze der Natur und die Differenzierung des Wissens. Alexander von Humboldt als Schriftsteller (Berlin, de Gruyter, 2007) (Quellen und Forschungen zur Literatur- und Kulturgeschichte 47 (281)).
Rich, Nathaniel, "The Very Great Alexander von Humboldt" (review of Andrea Wulf, The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New World, Knopf, 2015, 473 pp., and Jedediah Purdy, After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene, Harvard University Press, 2015, 326 pp.), The New York Review of Books, vol. LXII, no. 16 (22 October 2015), pp. 37–39.
Rupke, Nicolaas A., Alexander von Humboldt. A Metabiography. Corrected edition. (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2008).
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 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Humboldt, Friedrich Heinrich Alexander von". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links