Humboldt Penguin, the gigantic Humboldt Current and yeast fungus Pichia Humboldtii. They all have Humboldt in common, and so do other 19 animal species, 17 plants, two glaciers, eight mountains and ranges, a river, two asteroids, a sea of the moon, a moon crater, an airport, and countless academic establishments.
Photo by: Justus von Liebig and eight others seated in a committee, Wellcome Library, London
The most celebrated Berliner, who was born and died in Berlin at the age of 89, Alexander von Humboldt would have turned 252 this month.
Alexander von Humboldt was born into a wealthy and well-connected family. Even though sadly both parents died at an early age, Alexander inherited a nice sum and was able to start his extensive travels. Within a year of his mother’s death, he set off on a journey around South America, (almost) conquered Mt. Chimborazo, which then was considered the highest mountain in the world. In the scope of the next few decades, he measured the Peruvian current, lived in Paris writing his book, and embarked on an expedition to Russia when he was already 60 years old. Needless to say, von Humboldt was a world citizen and a remarkable cosmopolitan of his time, speaking many languages fluently.
Never married and being alone, to a true Berliner, never means being lonely. Same was for Alexander. In his lifetime, he wrote almost 50,000 letters (on average two letters a day!), which leads to a question how much this could constitute to, if he had a modern-day messenger, Zoom, or an email. Based on the 13,000 letters still existing today, the size of his network can be estimated at around 2,500 writers and recipients.
He was also lucky to be living in the era of Enlightenment, being surrounded by think-alike bohemians and scholars. Immanuel Kant, Arthur Schopenhauer, and Friedrich Schiller were among Humboldt's contemporaries. So were Carl Friedrich Gauss, Alessandro Volta and Michael Faraday. Charles Darwin was an inspiration, of course, and a fellow collaborator. Goethe, being an enthusiastic natural scientist (not just a poet), was a good friend.
Photo by: Arbeitszimmer des Alexander von Humboldt in Berlin, Oranienburger Str. 67
Photo by: Zentralbibliothek Zürich - Ideen zu einer Geographie der Pflanzen nebst einem Naturgemälde der Tropenländer
Photo by: Christian Friedrich Traugott Duttenhofer, Strasse über den Quindiu
Von Humboldt was the first in many endeavors, not to mention him being a forward-looking thinker, very much ahead of his own time. He was the first to document climactic and vegetation zones. He proved that at the appropriate altitude in mountains the vegetation is similar worldwide. He also proved that climate zones exist, where they are located and what effect they have on growth. He was the first to recognize that climate change is caused by man, by deforestation, by artificial irrigation and by gas and heat emissions in industrial areas. When traveling in Central and South America, he was appalled by the cruel working conditions faced by the indigenous people and slaves and is, in that part of the world, regarded as the founding father of independence movement and an advocate against slavery and oppression.
When his inheritance money ran out, he took a Prussian King’s invitation to become a diplomat and embarked on his extensive journey to Russia. Alexander Von Humboldt was already 60 then, nevertheless, stayed fit and healthy into his later years. The expedition was authorized by the Russian foreign minister with the intention to see whether a platinum-based currency was possible in Russia. Von Humboldt travelled through the Urals and Siberia, all the way up to the Chinese border, discovering diamonds and completing one of the biggest expeditions of his life.
Photo by: Bertholletia excelsa, Aimé Bonpland, Alexander von Humboldt
Photo by: Catasetum maculatum - Humboldt et Bonpland Nova Genera ... vol. 7, tab. 630
Photo by: Arrabidaea chica, Aimé Bonpland, Alexander von Humboldt
During the last 30 years of his life, Humboldt stayed in Berlin and was predominately occupied with writing his Cosmos, with four volumes appearing during his lifetime. Written in an easy-to-read literary narration style yet communicating the scientist’s excitement and aesthetic enjoyment of his discoveries, this book was a great success and within just few years was translated into nearly all European languages. Von Humboldt died in his 90th year, while working on his book’s fifth volume.
“How a person masters his fate is more important than what his fate is.” Alexander von Humboldt lived truly to his words and in harmony with the world around.