Alexander von Humboldt


Baron Friedrich Wilhelm Heinrich Alexander von Humboldt (German: Friedrich Wilhelm Heinrich Alexander Freiherr von Humboldt, September 14, 1769, Berlin – May 6, 1859, there) – German geographer, naturalist and traveler, one of the founders of geography as an independent science, the younger brother of scientist Wilhelm von Humboldt.

Humboldt”s scientific interests were unusually varied. He saw his main task as “comprehending nature as a whole and gathering evidence of the interaction of natural forces”; his contemporaries nicknamed him the Aristotle of the 19th century for his breadth of scientific interests. Based on general principles and using the comparative method, he created such scientific disciplines as physical geography, landscape science, and ecological geography of plants. Thanks to Humboldt”s researches the scientific foundations of geomagnetism were laid.

He paid much attention to the study of climate, developed the method of isotherms, mapped their distribution, and in fact gave the basis for climatology as a science. He described in detail the continental and coastal climate and established the nature of their differences.

Member of the Berlin (1800), Prussian and Bavarian Academies of Sciences. Honorary member of the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences (1818).


On their father”s side, the Humboldt brothers came from the Pomeranian bourgeoisie. Their grandfather served as an officer in the Prussian army and was elevated to nobility in 1738, thanks to personal merit and the request submitted. His son Alexander George was also a Prussian officer, who distinguished himself in the Seven Years” War. After his retirement in 1766, Alexander George moved to Berlin, where he was appointed chamberlain to the crown prince and married a wealthy widow, Baroness Maria Elisabeth von Holwede (née Colombe). Maria Elisabeth came from a family of French Huguenots who had fled to Prussia from the violence and oppression of Louis XIV. Through his marriage, Alexander Georg von Humboldt became the owner of the suburban Tegel palace and the surrounding land… Alexander Georg and Maria Elisabeth had two sons: Wilhelm (22 June 1767) and Alexander (1769). Alexander and Wilhelm”s half-brother (from their mother”s first marriage) was Ferdinand von Holwede (1763-1817).

Alexander von Humboldt himself was never married.

The future scholar was baptized in the cathedral of Berlin. His godfathers were the future King of Prussia Friedrich Wilhelm II, Duke Ferdinand von Braunschweig and Minister Baron von Finkenstein.

Study and first steps in science

Alexander and Wilhelm received a wonderful home education. Their first governess was Joachim Heinrich Kampe, later a famous teacher and linguist. In 1777 the boys” tutor was Christian Kunt, a follower of Rousseau, who possessed encyclopedic knowledge.

The education of the Humboldt brothers was greatly influenced by the Enlightenment, the ideas of Kant and Rousseau. Their teachers were the philosopher and writer I. Engel, the historian H. Dom, the theologian and connoisseur of ancient languages Loeffler. Alexander was considered a hard child who did not like learning, but he showed an interest in nature and had an artistic talent.

In 1785 Humboldt met C. Nicolai and M. Mendelssohn.

In 1787 he entered the University of Frankfurt an der Oder, where he studied economics and finance. He also attended lectures in medicine, physics, mathematics, and the science of the ancient world.

In 1788 Alexander came to Berlin, where he studied Greek language and technology. Humboldt”s good acquaintance C. L. Wildenow, later director of the Berlin Botanical Garden and a noted expert in plant taxonomy, helped him learn botany.

In the spring of 1789 the Humboldt brothers arrived at the renowned University of Göttingen, where such distinguished scholars as C. Heine (classical literature), I. Blumenbach (anatomy), A. Kästner (mathematics and physics), H. Lichtenberg (physics and astronomy), I. Eichhorn (Eastern languages and history) taught – and Alexander enthusiastically attended lectures. Thanks to C. Heine he became interested in archeology and prepared his first, unpublished, scientific work, On the Tissues of the Greeks. In the same year he made a trip to Germany. At the University of Göttingen Alexander wrote his first geological work, On the Rhine Basalts (Mineralogische Beobachtungen über einige Basalte am Rhein.  – Brunswick, 1790). There he became friends with the naturalist and ethnographer Georg Forster, a member of James Cook”s second round-the-world expedition.

Together with H. Forster they made a journey beyond the German lands: having set out in March 1790 from Mainz (along the Rhine), visited the Netherlands, England, reached the shores of France and in June arrived in Paris. The result of this expedition, according to Humboldt, was “a strong and suddenly awakened passion for travel and visiting distant tropical countries. He soon arrived in Hamburg, where he studied mineralogy and botany and, as a student at the academy of commerce, also studied languages. He continued his botanical studies in Berlin and eventually prepared several scientific notes, one of which dealt with the phenomenon of accelerated seed germination under the influence of chlorine.

In the summer of 1791 Alexander came to Freiberg to study geology at the mining academy under A. G. Werner (June 14, 1791-February 27, 1792). In August 1791, accompanied by one of his friends at the academy, I. C. Freiesleben. In the winter of 1792, having completed his studies, Humboldt returned to Berlin:

Mature Years.

In 1792 Humboldt received the position of Oberebergmeister in Ansbach and Bayreuth. The activities associated with this position suited Humboldt”s desires, and he zealously embarked on them. In an effort to promote and develop the mining industry, he studied its history according to archival documents, renewed the abandoned ore mines in Goldkronach, established a mining school in Steben, dealt with the study of gases in mines and tried to invent a safe lamp and breathing apparatus for use in cases when a lot of carbon dioxide or other harmful gases accumulated in a mine. In 1792-1794 he made numerous inspection trips through the lands of Germany.

In parallel with this practical work, there was scientific research: articles and notes on geology and botany were published, including “Florae Fribergensis Specimen” (Florae Fribergensis Specimen, 1793), “Aphorisms from the chemical physiology of plants” (results of Humboldt”s experiments on plant tissue irritability, plant nutrition and respiration). To the same period belong the research of “animal electricity”, published a little later under the title “Experiments on irritated muscle and nerve fibers” (German. Versuche über die gereizte Muskel- und Nervenfaser. Berlin, 1797). Some of his experiments were carried out on himself, with the assistance of Dr. Schaldern: Humboldt”s back was the object of study.

In these works, Humboldt”s characteristic features as a scientist were already apparent: The desire to find a common basis for the seemingly heterogeneous phenomena, distrust of metaphysical principles (but already in his studies of animal electricity he sets forth a quite rational view of life, established in science only in the 1830-1840s), the insight of a genius ahead of his time (his views on electrical phenomena in animal tissues were confirmed 50 years later in the works of Dubois-Reymond; The opinion about the role of mineral salts as a necessary component of plant nutrition was confirmed in science only after the works of Sossur and Libich). At the same time, the task of his life – “physical world-writing” was defined.

“The Physics of the World is a collection of a number of sciences, some of which were founded by Humboldt himself. Finally, the desire to convey scientific conclusions in artistic, figurative form (the fruit of which were later Pictures of Nature and Cosmos) was manifested in the article Die Lebenskraft, oder der rhodische Genius, a beautifully written, but rather pretentious allegorical depiction of “life force” (printed in Schiller”s Die Horen, 1795).

He was acquainted with many high-ranking officials and persons close to the court; the Crown Prince knew both of the Humboldt brothers personally and valued them. All this often forced Alexander to take part in the affairs of state. For example, he accompanied Gartenberg to Frankfurt am Main to negotiate with the Dutch and English commissioners (1794). After the conclusion of the Peace of Basel Humboldt was sent to Moreau, the French commander-in-chief, to negotiate the possessions of Hohenlohe (the Prussian government was afraid of their devastation by the French), and he successfully completed the assignment given to him.


For a long time Alexander did not undertake long-distance travels, as this was contrary to the will of his mother, who did not support such aspirations of her son. But when Maria Elisabeth von Humboldt died (1796), he retired, determined to take part in a serious scientific expedition. In doing so, he could count on his share of the inheritance (about 85,000 thalers).

But these plans proved difficult to carry out due to the unstable political situation in the world. Military operations prevented the Humboldt brothers from traveling to Italy, where Alexander had intended to see active volcanoes. The trip down the Nile to Aswan also failed because Humboldt”s wealthy companion, the English Lord Bristol, was arrested for political reasons. Military expenditures had starved the French treasury, so members of the Executive Directory decided to postpone the circumnavigation of the globe by Captain Baudin, with whose crew Alexander and his new friend, the young botanist Aimé Bonplan, had hoped to travel. The attempt to join the French scientific expedition to Egypt also proved unsuccessful: the French fleet was utterly defeated by the British at Aboukir, which interrupted the maritime communications of the republic with Alexandria.

Preparing for a long trip, Humboldt lived in various European cities: Jena, Berlin, Vienna, Salzburg, Paris, Marseilles. In Jena he studied the basics of astronomy under F. von Zach; there he saw Goethe and Schiller. In Salzburg Alexander conducted research in geology.

More than any other city, Alexander liked the “capital of the world,” where he received recognition and met many brilliant scientists of the time. It was here that he met Bonplan, who was just as passionate about scientific expeditions to distant lands. Together they arrived in Marseilles to sail from that port to Tunis. When it became apparent that political circumstances were an insurmountable obstacle to the voyage to Africa, Alexander and Aimé traveled to Spain, where they conducted topographic, meteorological, and botanical investigations for some time.

Charles Darwin would call him “the greatest traveling scientist who ever lived.

In Madrid, Alexander met with King Charles IV and received the highest permission to conduct scientific research on Spanish territories in the Americas and the Pacific. Humboldt and Bonplanet sailed to New Spain aboard the corvette Pizarro on the night of June 5, 1799, when British ships blockading the port of La Coruña were forced by a storm to withdraw to the open sea.

Alexander prepared for the expedition very thoroughly, taking aboard the corvette about 50 state-of-the-art instruments and devices for scientific measurements and observations, including a telescope, telescopes, sextants, quadrants, ship”s chronometer, inclinator, declinator, cyanometer, eudiometer, areometer, gauge, hygrometer, barometer, thermometer, electrometer. At first the Pissaro headed for the Canary Islands, making a six-day stop in Tenerife. Here the friends made an ascent of Teide (3,718 m), observing the change of altitudinal belts, and Humboldt had “the idea of the relation of vegetation to climate, which he laid down as the basis of botanical geography.” They spent the night in a cave near the top of the volcano Teide, and in the morning they examined its crater.

The voyage continued for 22 days. During this time the ship crossed the Atlantic and on July 16, 1799, dropped anchor in Cumana, Venezuela. Here the explorers were forced to abandon the corvette because of an epidemic on board.

In September, Humboldt visited the Catholic mission in Caripe and explored the Guacharo Cave, where he discovered a bird species new to science, the guaharo (Steatornis caripensis Humb.). Returning to Cumana, Alexander observed the Leonida meteor shower (on the night of November 11-12, 1799). He later published a description of this astronomical phenomenon, which contributed in no small measure to the understanding of the periodic nature of such events.

Humboldt and Bonplan spent two months in Caracas and then traveled overland to Apure. The journey was overland through the Llanos, where in a swamp the travelers witnessed a fierce battle between electric eels and horses, which the Indians had arranged to facilitate the capture of the eels. From Apure they sailed down the river of the same name in a pirogue with five Indians. They intended to swim to the Orinoco and ascend to its headwaters to see if the basin of that river connected with the Amazon system. After discovering that the two river systems were connected by a channel called Casiciare, the explorers, traveling down the Orinoco, reached Angostura, the capital of the Spanish province of Guayana (now Ciudad Bolívar, in Venezuela).

Humboldt wrote to Wildenow:

For four months we slept in the woods, surrounded by crocodiles, boas and tigers, which even attack boats here, eating only rice, ants, cassava, pisang, Orinoco water and occasionally monkeys… In Guayan, where we had to walk with our head and hands covered because of the many mosquitoes that overpower the air, it was almost impossible to write in daylight: one cannot hold a pen in hand, so fierce are the stings of insects. So all our work had to be done by fire, in an Indian hut where no sunlight penetrates…

On November 24, 1800, the friends sailed for Havana. In Cuba they met the famous plant collector John Fraser. Fraser”s son helped transport some of the collected herbarium to Europe. The study of the nature and political geography of the Antilles took several months, during which time extensive material was collected for the Essai politique sur l′île de Cuba.

Then Alexander and Aimé again crossed to the South American mainland, and on March 30, 1801, in Cartagena, on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, began the second phase of the expedition. A long time was devoted to the exploration of the Sabana de Bogotá plateau. The further route was through the Quindiu (Cordillera) Passage to Quito. It was a tiring and dangerous crossing: on foot, through narrow gorges, in the pouring rain, without shoes that quickly wore out and fell apart.

In any case, in January 1802 the travelers reached Quito. In this part of America they remained for about a year, exploring from all possible angles its rich nature. Humboldt climbed the volcanoes Pichinchu, Cotopaxi, Antizanu, Tungurahua, tried to climb the hitherto unconquered Chimborazo (the way was blocked by a crevasse; estimates of the height to which Humboldt climbed range from 5350 to 5878 m) and others. While in Callao on November 9, 1802, Humboldt observed the passage of Mercury across the solar disk). Along the way he studied the Inca culture and language, as well as pre-Inca manuscripts written in the once common Punuguay language in Quito. In Quito a third participant, the independence fighter Carlos Montufar, joined the journey.

From South America the researchers traveled to Mexico, where they spent about a year. Humboldt determined the geographical position of various locations, studied the activities of volcanoes – including the famous Jorulho, which formed in 1759 – took many barometric measurements, studied the pyramids and temples of the ancient inhabitants of Mexico – the Aztecs and Toltecs, and studied the history and political state of the country. He was the first to publish in 1810 the Aztec manuscript Codex Telleriano-Remensis.

Finally, on July 9, 1804, after nearly five years in America, Humboldt and Bonplanet sailed for Europe and landed in Bordeaux on August 3 of that year.

The results of their journey were impressive. Before Humboldt, only one point in South America – Quito – had been accurately defined astronomically; the geological structure of the continent had not been studied before. Humboldt determined the latitude and longitude of many points, studied the orography of the area, making about 700 hypsometric measurements, collected extensive information about the climate of the region and pointed out its distinctive features.

Scientists have gathered a huge botanical and zoological collections – some plants are about 4000 species, including 1800 new to science.

The connection of the Amazon and Orinoco systems was proved; the direction of some mountain ranges was determined and new ones were discovered (the sea current along the western shores of America, called “Humboldt”s”, was mapped.

The ethnography, history, languages, and political condition of the countries visited were not neglected: a great deal of material was collected, later analyzed by Humboldt or his collaborators.

Humboldt and Bonplanet”s voyage is rightly called the second – scientific – discovery of America.

Back in Europe

Humboldt remained in Paris to process and publish the results of his American voyage. The first volume of his giant work, Voyage aux regions équinoxiales du Nouveau Continent, fait en 1799, 1800, 1801, 1802, 1803 et 1804 par Alexander Humboldt et Aimé Bonpland

Most of the work consists mainly of Bonplan”s descriptions of plants (16 volumes), astronomical and geodetic and cartographic materials (5 volumes), the other part consists of zoology and comparative anatomy, travel descriptions, and more.

Humboldt”s collaborators were Oltmans (astronomical calculations), Bonplan and Kunt (description of plants), Cuvier, Valenciennes and Latreille (zoology), Klaproth and Vokelen (mineralogy), von Buch (fossils).

Humboldt himself owns a description of the journey (fr. Relation historique, 3 vols. in 4°), a general picture of nature, climate, geological structure, life and monuments of wild countries (treatise on the geographical distribution of plants (a collection of studies on geology and comparative anatomy (2 volumes) and treatises on the political condition of the Spanish colonies (fr. Essai politai sur la Nouvelle Espagne, 2 volumes with 20 maps).

In addition to these works of a more or less specialized nature, in 1808 Humboldt published Pictures of Nature (German: Ansichten der Natur), a series of pictures of tropical nature drawn with remarkable skill. “The Cosmos is superior in depth and variety, but far inferior to the Pictures of Nature in its vividness and freshness of depiction.

The following year, 1805 Humboldt traveled to Italy to his brother, who gave him materials for the study of American dialects, went to Naples to see the eruption of Vesuvius, which occurred that year, and thence went to Berlin, where he lived 1806-1807 years, was engaged in magnetic observations, wrote “Pictures of Nature” and, it seems, not particularly distressed by the political hardships of his homeland. The cosmopolitan leaven was too strong in him.

In 1808, however, he had to abandon his scientific studies in order to accompany Prince Wilhelm of Prussia to Paris, who went there to negotiate with Napoleon. Humboldt, who enjoyed great prestige in high Parisian society, had to prepare the ground for the agreement, which he did successfully.

After that he lived in France for almost 20 years (1809-1827). Paris at that time shone with a constellation of scientists that no other city in Europe could boast of. Cuvier, Laplace, Gay-Lussac, Arago, Biot, Brignard and others were at work here. With Gay-Lussac, Humboldt worked on the chemical composition of the air, with Biot on the earth”s magnetism, with Saint-Hilaire on fish breathing.

Simplicity and freedom of relations, sociability and lack of petty jealousy were to his liking. Humboldt led such a busy life in Paris that he left barely 4-5 hours a day for sleep. Such an active life he led until his death and, most surprisingly, remained always healthy and strong physically and mentally.

Humboldt”s great influence in the scientific circle of Paris made all scholars who came to the French capital strive for him, especially as he generously lavished his influence and money on others. When Agassiz for lack of funds had to stop classes in Paris, Humboldt most delicately forced him to accept financial assistance; when Liebig, still unknown, a novice scientist, read in Paris one of his first works, Humboldt immediately met him and gave him active support.

Even in America Humboldt dreamed of a trip to Asia and was now actively preparing for it, studying, among other things, Persian with Sylvestre de Sassi. In 1811 Russian chancellor Count Rumyantsev offered him to join his embassy, which the emperor Alexander I was sending to Kashgar and Tibet. But the events of 1812 and the following years consumed the attention of the Russian government, and the expedition did not take place.

In 1818 Humboldt was in Aachen for the congress, but he only bothered about the Asian voyage. All his fortune was spent on the American expedition and the publication of its results, so that he could now travel only at public expense; but even this time the trip did not take place, and Humboldt returned to Paris.

In 1822 he went to Italy, visited Vesuvius and investigated the changes that had taken place in it between the eruptions of 1807 and 1822.

Friedrich Wilhelm III was personally attracted to Humboldt and valued his company. In 1826, he invited his learned friend to relocate closer to him. Humboldt, begrudgingly, moved to “foggy Berlin”. From then on, he lived mainly in Berlin, frequently visited the court, accompanied the king on trips to Europe and, although he played no official role, he tried, if possible, to counteract reaction, whose adherents called Humboldt a “court revolutionary”.

The period after the establishment in Berlin, from late 1827 to April 1828, was marked by Humboldt”s active work in popularizing science. It took the form of free public lectures, held in two places, the University of Berlin (61 lectures) and the Singing Academy (16 lectures) with the largest hall in Berlin accessible to the general public, now the Maxim Gorky Theater is located in the academy building. The lectures “On the physical description of the world” served as the basis for Humboldt”s future popular science work, Cosmos. They attracted a massive audience – up to a thousand people gathered for each lecture. In the twenties of the XIX century, science is only just beginning to descend from its heights into the realm of everyday life, and Humboldt lectures were in their own way unexpected and striking phenomenon. They mark the triumph of a new direction in the spiritual life of Europe – a direction characteristic of the nineteenth century and consisting in the convergence of science with life. At the same time they were the first sketch of a new science – the physical description of the world. At the end of the lectures (1828) a specially appointed committee presented Humboldt with a medal depicting the sun and the inscription: Illustrans lotum radiis splendentibus orbem (from the Latin – “Illuminating the whole world with bright rays”).

Journey through Russia

For several years, Humboldt corresponded with Count Kankrin, the Minister of Finance of the Russian Empire, who asked the venerable scholar for his opinion on the advisability of introducing platinum coins into the country”s currency circulation. As a result, Humboldt received an official invitation “in the interests of science and the country” to visit the Ural ore deposits.

On April 12, 1829 Humboldt and his companions Gustav Rose and Christian Gottfried Ehrenberg left Berlin, and on May 1 they were already in St. Petersburg (the route to the Russian capital went through Königsberg, the Curonian Spit and Dorpat, with a short visit to the University of Dorpat). The trip was made “at the expense of the Russian government:

While in Berlin, Humboldt received a bill of 1,200 chervonets, and in St. Petersburg – 20 thousand rubles. Carriages, apartments and horses were prepared in advance; Humboldt was accompanied by an official of the Mining Department Menshenin, who spoke German and French; in dangerous areas on the Asian border travelers were to be accompanied by a convoy…

At first they followed the route: St. Petersburg – Moscow – Vladimir – Nizhny Novgorod – Kazan – Yekaterinburg – Perm. They reached Kazan by the Volga River.

The explorers spent several weeks in the Middle Urals, devoting time to geological surveys and inspecting deposits of iron, gold-bearing ores, native platinum, and malachite. They visited famous Ural factories, including the Nevyansk and Verkhneturinsk factories:

Humboldt could not ignore the wretched state of the serfs and the impossible state of industry, but it was uncomfortable to talk about it, and he promised Kankrin – with whom he corresponded quite frankly – not to take the rubbish out of the house…

During his travels in the Urals, Humboldt proposed to reduce the waterlogging of the gold mines by draining Lake Shartash near Yekaterinburg. Humboldt”s authority was so great that his proposal was accepted despite the protests of the local mining specialists. The water level in the lake was significantly lowered, the lake almost disappeared, but the water in the mines remained at the same level.

The further way went through Tobolsk, Barnaul, Semipalatinsk, Omsk, and Miass. In the Barabinsk steppe, the scientists significantly replenished their zoological and botanical collections. After arriving in Miass, where the celebrations on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of Humboldt, the expedition continued along the Southern Urals with a tour of Zlatoust, Kichimsk, Orsk and Orenburg. Visiting the Iletskoe deposit of rock salt, the travelers arrived in Astrakhan, and then “made a short trip on the Caspian Sea. On the way back Humboldt visited Moscow University, where he was organized a solemn meeting. November 13, 1829 members of the expedition returned to St. Petersburg.

Despite the short duration of the trip, it was very productive: its results are reflected in a three-volume work “Central Asia” (Fr. Asie Centrale, 1843). At the University of Dorpat Humboldt met with prominent scientists of the Russian Empire: the director of the University Observatory V. Ya.  Я.  Struve, a mineralogist O. M. von Engelhardt, a plant systematist K. H. Ledebur.  H. Ledebur, the naturalist I. Parrot – and their students.

The Central Asian Volcanism Hypothesis

In “Fragments on the Geology and Climatology of Asia,” in two volumes, 1831, and “Central Asia,” in three volumes, 1843, Humboldt, based on rare published reports from Chinese sources and survey information he received during a trip to Russia, justified the hypothesis of the existence of several active volcanoes in Central Asia. Humboldt attached a hypothetical map of Asia to the editions, on which he plotted the probable positions of volcanoes.

In the middle of the 19th century physicists, geologists and geographers were dominated by the theory of the “marine” origin of volcanoes, when during earthquakes of coastal areas of land the water of the world ocean flows into the cracks formed in the Earth”s crust and the reaction of red-hot bowels to water is the result of volcanic eruptions.

Existing views were confirmed by the large number of volcanoes on the islands and coasts, as well as by the emission of water vapor during volcanic eruptions. This is why Humboldt”s hypothesis seemed unbelievable and excited the scientific community.

Explorers from a number of countries went to Asia in search of “Humboldt volcanoes.” No active volcanoes were found. However, Humboldt was right: a large number of volcanoes in continental Asia exists and these volcanoes are quite young. The “marine theory” of volcano formation proved to be untenable.


After returning from Russia, Humboldt went to Paris (1830), where he intended to process the scientific results of the expedition. In addition, the trip also pursued political goals: to welcome the new French dynasty. Living in Paris, Alexander often appeared at court, sending reports to Friedrich Wilhelm III on the political situation. He had unquestionable authority in the scientific community and won the friendship of many French scholars.

In 1832 Humboldt returned to Berlin, where he continued to work on a multi-volume scientific and philosophical work, which at first he intended to call “Essai sur la physique du monde. The intention to write a work intended for the general public and containing the quintessence of scientific knowledge about the world, appeared in his mind even before the trip to America, in 1796.

In 1835 Wilhelm Humboldt died, and Alexander began to publish his brother”s works (three volumes were published during 1836-1839). Much time was taken up by court duties. In 1840 the old king died and his son Frederick William IV, who treated the scholar as respectfully as his father, ascended the throne. But “his bizarre, strange character and reactionary politics caused much annoyance to Humboldt.

In 1845 the first volume of the work was published, which A. Humboldt in a letter to Farhagen (1834) called “the work of his life. The book was called “Cosmos: A Plan for Describing the Physical World” (German: Kosmos: Entwurf einer physischen Weltbeschreibung) and was preceded by these words of the great enlightener:

At the end of my active life, I am handing over to the German public a work whose plan has carried in my soul for almost half a century.

In 1847, 1852, and 1857 three subsequent volumes (the second, third, and fourth, respectively) were published. Until the last days of his life the scholar continued to work on the fifth volume, but he was unable to complete it.

Humboldt”s work has been translated into many languages and has been praised by the European scientific community.

At the end of the nineteenth century, the Russian publicist M. A. Engelhardt, author of biographies of many famous scientists, wrote:

“Cosmos” represents the body of knowledge of the first half of our century and, most precious of all, a body compiled by a specialist, because Humboldt was a specialist in every field except higher mathematics…

At the end of an active life.

The hectic activity and constant mental strain did not weaken Humboldt”s physical and spiritual powers. On the contrary, in the last years of his life, approaching his ninetieth birthday, he was as energetic as he had been in his youth. Receiving up to 2,000 letters a year, the scholar for the most part responded immediately. He worked, received visitors, made business and friendly visits, and, when he returned home late, continued to work until 3 or 4 a.m.

He was fluent in English, Spanish, and French.

One of the reasons for Humboldt”s enormous popularity was his generosity and selfless love of science, which compelled him with all his might to promote and encourage young talent. Despite his high position, he left no fortune. Kind and accommodating in trifles, Humboldt nevertheless did not keep silent about what angered him; he stood up for people unjustly suspected of disloyalty, and often in rather harsh terms reproached the king for reactionary policies. Humboldt”s active attitude and independent way of thinking contributed to the fact that he made many enemies among those close to power. He held court only because of the personal disposition of the king. In recent years, he felt dissatisfaction with the general state of affairs in the country, which was joined by a feeling of loneliness: Humboldt”s friends and peers died one after another. Neither Goethe nor Wilhelm Humboldt had been alive for a long time. In 1853, L. von Buch, with whom Humboldt had a 63-year friendship, died; he was followed by the best of his Parisian friends, F. Arago. In 1857, the King fell ill; and soon the last of the scholar”s old friends, C. A. Farnhagen von Enze (1858), passed away, and Humboldt, in the halo of his fame, remained lonely, weary and sad. At the end of April 1859, he caught a cold and fell ill. The fatal illness progressed rapidly, but it did not cause much suffering. The scientist”s consciousness persisted until his last day: he died on May 6, 1859.

Numerous of Humboldt”s works, representing an entire encyclopedia of natural history, are linked to the idea of a physical description of the world.

Studies of the chemical composition of the air led Humboldt and Gay-Lussac to the following results: 1) the composition of the atmosphere remains generally constant; 2) the oxygen content of the air is 21%; 3) the air contains no significant admixture of hydrogen. This was the first accurate study of the atmosphere.

Air temperature prompted a number of Humboldt”s studies. The distribution of heat on the earth”s surface is an extremely complex, confusing phenomenon. Before discovering its causes, it is necessary to know the facts themselves, that is, to have a picture of the distribution of heat on the globe. Humboldt accomplished this task by establishing isotherms, after Acosta”s seminal work in this area. The work on isotherms served as the basis of comparative climatology. The scientific world met Humboldt”s work with the greatest sympathy; everywhere began to collect data to supplement and correct isotherms. In his first monograph on the subject (1817) we find only 57 places with a certain annual temperature, in “Central Asia” (1841) their number already reaches 311, in the “Minor Works” (1853) – 306.

Humboldt also wrote a number of major studies on the climate of the southern hemisphere, on the decrease of temperature in the upper layers of air, on the influence of the sea on the temperature of the lower layers of air, on the boundaries of the eternal snow in different countries, etc. He clarified the concepts of maritime and continental climates; showed the causes that mitigate climate in the northern hemisphere, and, applying his conclusions to Europe and Asia, gave pictures of their climates, defined their difference and the reasons on which it depends.

Humidity and air pressure also occupied him a great deal. He showed, for example, the causes of diurnal fluctuations of the barometer in tropical countries, etc.

Before Humboldt there was no botanical geography as a science, although there were fragmentary indications in the works of Linnaeus, Hmeling, etc. Humboldt based his botanical geography on the climatic principle; pointed out the analogy between the gradual change of vegetation from the equator to the pole and from the foot of the mountains to the top; characterized the plant belts, which alternate as they ascend to the mountain top or pass from the equator to the northern latitude; gave the first attempt to divide the globe into botanical areas, and much more. The works of Decandole, Grisebach, Engler, and others turned Humboldt”s sketch into a vast science. Nevertheless, Humboldt will forever be remembered as the founder of botanical geography.

Humboldt”s studies in zoology are not as important as his botanical work. Many species were brought from America by him and Bonplan; Humboldt reported much about the life of various animals, gave an excellent monograph of the condor, an outline of the vertical and horizontal distribution of animals in tropical America, and more.

In the anatomy and physiology of animals, he conducted studies on the structure of the throat of birds and howler monkeys. Together with Gay-Lussac he studied the structure of the electrical organ in fish; with Provençal he studied the respiration of fish and crocodiles.

In the field of geology Humboldt was one of the chief promoters of the plutonic theory, developed chiefly by L. von Buch. Humboldt did not speak quite sharply and definitely for it; but to a considerable extent he developed the factual material on which it was built. He pointed out the wide distribution of volcanic phenomena, the relationship between distant and scattered volcanoes, features in their geographical distribution, speaking in favor of the theory of Buch; defined the band of earthquakes in Asia; classified earthquakes, reducing them to three different types. Humboldt is one of the main pillars of the doctrine that has long dominated science.

His research on the Earth”s magnetism belongs to the physics of the Earth itself. He was the first to actually prove that the intensity of the Earth”s magnetism varies at different latitudes, decreasing from the poles to the equator. He also owns the discovery of sudden perturbations of the magnetic arrow (magnetic storms) and other particularities. Of great importance for science were the magnetic observatories set up on Humboldt”s idea by the English, Russian and American governments.

Humboldt”s classic works on the geography of Asia first clarified in general terms its orography, climatology and served as a basis for further research. In this science he occupies an important place along with Ritter: with their works they created a truly scientific description of the land.

Humboldt”s studies of sea currents can be considered the beginning of a new branch of knowledge that grew into a vast science after Maury”s work.

Humboldt published a huge five-volume work on the history of geography. It outlined the reasons that prepared the discovery of America, the gradual course of discoveries in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

A great deal of Humboldt”s work was also devoted to man: data on the political condition of the Spanish colonies, on the ancient civilization of the Aztecs, general conclusions on the relation of nature and man, on the influence of nature on civilization, the wanderings of tribes, etc.  – are to be found in the various volumes of his American voyage, as well as in the books on Asia.

He was the first to introduce into science the concept of “spheres of life” (lebensphere), that is, all life on the planet, which later became known in translation as the biosphere. He was one of the first (after Buffon and Lamarck) to distinguish Life as another all-planetary phenomenon, along with the litho-, atmo-, and hydrospheres.

The great naturalist introduced a lot of facts into science, introduced a whole stream of thoughts that were later developed by others and entered into our worldview.

In the plant kingdom

Four plant genera are named after Humboldt:

The botanical nomenclature guide Index Kewensis, published by the Royal Botanic Gardens of Kew, England, includes 321 plant species named after Humboldt.

In philately

In 1829 Humboldt, returning from his trip to Russia, stopped briefly in Moscow. Here is how A. I. Hertzen describes Humboldt”s visit to Moscow University in his “Bylom and Thinking”:

Humboldt, returning from the Urals, was met in Moscow at a gala meeting of the Society of Naturalists at the University, whose members were various senators, governors, – in general people who were not involved in either natural or unnatural sciences. Glory of Humboldt, His Prussian Majesty”s Privy Counselor, to whom the Emperor deigned to give Anna and ordered not to take money from him for the material and the diploma, reached them. They dared not to smear themselves in the face of the man who had been to Schimborazo and lived in the Sans Souci. …The reception of Humboldt in Moscow and at the university was no small matter. The governor-general, various military and town governors, the Senate – everything showed up: a ribbon over his shoulder, in full uniform, professors belligerently with swords and with three-cornered hats under their arms. Humboldt, unsuspecting, arrived in a blue tuxedo with gold buttons and, of course, was confused. From the halls to the hall of the Society of Naturalists, ambushes were prepared everywhere: here the rector, there the dean, there the beginning professor, there the veteran who was finishing his career and therefore speaking very slowly – everyone greeted him in Latin, in German, in French, and all this in those terrible stone pipes, called corridors, in which you can not stop for a minute not to catch cold for a month. Humboldt listened to everything without a hat and answered everything-I”m sure that all the savages he had, redskins and copper-colored, made him less trouble than the Moscow reception. When he reached the hall and sat down, then he had to get up. The Trustee Pisarev deemed it necessary, in brief but strong words, to order, in Russian, the merits of his Excellency and the famous traveller; whereupon Sergei Glinka, “the officer,” in a voice of one thousand eight hundred and twelve, thickly and hoarse, recited his poem, which began thus: “Humboldt is Promethee de nos jours!” And Humboldt wanted to chat about his observations of the magnetic arrow, to compare his meteorological notes in the Urals with the Moscow ones – instead the rector went to show him something woven from the highest hair of Peter I…; at last Ehrenberg and Rose found occasion to tell him something about their discoveries.

Other publications

In Russian


  1. Гумбольдт, Александр фон
  2. Alexander von Humboldt
  3. ^ a b Rupke 2008, p. 116.
  4. ^ Helmut Thielicke, Modern Faith and Thought, William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1990, p. 174.
  5. ^ Rupke 2008, p. 54.
  6. ^ Humboldt attended Schelling”s lectures at the University of Berlin (Schelling taught there 1841–1845), but never accepted his natural philosophy (see “Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling—Biography” at, Lara Ostaric, Interpreting Schelling: Critical Essays, Cambridge University Press, 2014, p. 218, and Rupke 2008, p. 116).
  7. ^ Malcolm Nicolson, “Alexander von Humboldt and the Geography of Vegetation”, in: A. Cunningham and N. Jardine (eds.), Romanticism and the Sciences, Cambridge University Press, 1990, pp. 169–188; Michael Dettelbach, “Romanticism and Resistance: Humboldt and “German” Natural Philosophy in Natural Philosophy in Napoleonic France”, in: Robert M. Brain, Robert S. Cohen, Ole Knudsen (eds.), Hans Christian Ørsted and the Romantic Legacy in Science: Ideas, Disciplines, Practices, Springer, 2007; Maurizio Esposito, Romantic Biology, 1890–1945, Routledge, 2015, p. 31.
  8. Воспитывал братьев недолго, и покинул семью Гумбольдтов, когда Александру было три года[11].
  9. Dettelbach, Michael (2007). «Romanticism And Resistance: Humboldt And “German” Natural Philosophy In Napoleonic France». Boston Studies In The Philosophy Of Science. 241: 247-258. doi:10.1007/978-1-4020-2987-5_13. Consultado em 13 de setembro de 2021
  10. Nicolson, Malcolm (1990). «Alexander von Humboldt and the Geography of Vegetation». Romanticism and the Sciences. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 169–188. ISBN 978-0521356855
  11. Andrea Wulf, ed. (23 de dezembro de 2015). «The Forgotten Father of Environmentalism». The Atlantic. Consultado em 13 de setembro de 2021
  12. a b Wulf 2015, p. 37.
  13. a b c Wulf 2015, p. 39.
  14. Andrea Wulf 2017, p. 37.
  15. Andrea Wulf 2017, p. 38.
  16. Andrea Wulf 2017, p. 43.
  17. Andrea Wulf 2017, p. 44.