Andrea/Cara here, As a unabashed history geek, I’m always excited when I discover the in-depth story of a fascinating figure from the past about whom I don’t know much—and I’m even more excited when in the process I also gain a broader perspective on the world in which the individual lived and how his or her achievements helped shape it. So I’m here to gush about my newest historical hero heartthrob—Alexander von Humboldt.
Today, most of us know dare only vaguely familiar with his name as an ocean current located somewhere off the Pacific coast of South America. But in his day, he was arguably one of the most famous men in the world. As the Prussian king Friedrich Wilhelm IV said, he was “the greatest man since the Deluge.” On his death, newspapers around the world proclaimed how fortunate they all were to have lived in the “Age of Humboldt.”
Scientist, Poet, Educator, Artist, Philosopher. The details of Humboldt’s extraordinary personality and accomplishments are brought to life in The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf. His insatiable curiosity, his meticulous recording of data and details of the natural world—from the tiniest insects to the faraway stars—his lyrical prose that expressed the wondrous joy at seeing Life as a great web of interconnected threads, literally changed the way the 19th century world looked at science. From Charles Darwin to Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman, both scientists and artists were inspired by Humboldt, who today is being re-recognized as the Father of Ecology.
Humboldt, who was born in Prussia in 1769 and died in 1859, was a man constantly in motion, both intellectually and physically. As a child, he hated sitting still for his tutor, and would sneak out at every possible moment to roam the lands of his family’s estate, filling his pockets with leaves, snails, plants—whatever captured his eye that day—and his little notebooks with observations of the sky, the water, the air temperature.
Forced by his autocratic mother to enter the Prussian civil service in order to be “useful” to society, he found a position as a mining inspector, which at least allowed him to indulge his love for rooting around in the earth. He learned much about geology and came up with innovations for better production and worker safety. But he longed to expand his horizons. Everything interested him—geology, botany, zoology, and astronomy, just to name a few disciplines. He longed to shake off the shackles of an ordinary job and devote himself to understanding all the wonders of the cosmos.
It was at this time that he struck up a close friendship with Johan von Goethe, the legendary writer, poet and philosopher, who also had a keen interest in science. Goethe was impressed by Humboldt’s agile mind and curiosity, and together they experimented with electricity, discussed color theory, and debated philosophy, especially the radical new ideas of Kant, which stressed that Reason and Self and Imagination were inextricably intertwined.
This concept was at the heart of German Romanticism, which spread quickly throughout Europe. Humboldt was greatly influenced by the movement. As he wrote to Goethe, “Nature must be experienced through feeling.” It was a belief that dominated his thinking for the rest of his life.
And oh, what a life it was. On the death of his mother, he resigned his administrative position and lit out for Paris, the hotbed of intellectual thought and science. From there, he raced around, exploring the Alps, visiting museums and botanical gardens, learning how to use various scientific instruments for making precise measurements. But war made travel throughout the Continent difficult, and Humboldt longed to explore even more exotic places.
Having inherited a fortune, he was able to fund an expedition. The trouble was finding a place to go! He finally obtained permission from Spain to visit their colonial empire in South America. So off he sailed with a friend and fellow scientist Aime Bonpland in 1799. For the next five years, he and his expedition braved heat, cold, hunger, dangerous wildlife, bloodthirsty insects, perilous rivers and the daunting altitude of the Andes to collect countless specimens and record data on weather, temperature, plant life and geology. And he loved every minute of it.
Humboldt was in his element. His fascination with every aspect of Nature allowed him to see how they all tied together. For example, in 1802, he observed the effects of deforestation on a farming plateau, and noted how the loss of shade affected the soil temperature and evaporation of water, which in turn affected the birds and insects which lived in the ecosystem, which in turn . . . In other worlds, he saw how Nature had a symbiotic relationship and that man was harming the balance of it—a revolutionary idea at the time. In the past, it was taken for granted that Nature was there to simply to benefit man. Humboldt argued that man had a responsibility to protect the whole and not destroy it.
Humboldt also changed—as I said, quite literally—the way people understood their world with one amazing piece of artwork. He made a large drawing, known as the Naturgemalde, of the volcano, Chimborazo, at the time thought to be the highest mountain in the world, and then made a meticulous diagram on the sides, showing what plants grew where according to altitude. More importantly, from his exploration of the mountains of Europe, he noted how similar plants and trees grew at the same levels all around the world. It was an idea that sparked people to think twice about previous “truths.” All around the world, scientists began looking more carefully about the interrelationships between climate, geology, plant and animal life, and how they affected each other.
On his return to Europe, Humboldt wrote feverishly, not only about the results of his scientific observations, but also personal accounts of his reactions to the wonders of seeing Nature in all its infinite glory. His poetry was as inspiring as his science. Along with many other readers, the young Charles Darwin was captivated by Humboldt’s Personal Narrative, which he said inspired him to explore the world.
It’s impossible for me to recount all of Humboldt’s accomplishments here. He continued to write and travel until he was into his 80s; he held court at his home in Berlin to countless visitors; he mentored the careers of many up and coming young scientists and carried on correspondence with scientists all over the world. His books, which appealed to the general public, made him a household name and stirred an interest in understanding more of how the world worked. His magnum opus, The Cosmos, a multi-volume, lavishly illustrated compendium, sought to give an overview of the world from the inner percolating lava beneath the Earth’s surface to the distance galaxies that glittered in the night heavens. Kings, presidents (he and Thomas Jefferson had a close friendship) and heads of state courted his opinions. When he died, the whole world mourned the loss of a charismatic thought leader.
I found Humboldt an absolutely remarkable, inspiring individual, whose observations—and warnings—feel even more important in this day and age. So what about you? Did you know the details of Humboldt’s life? Do you have an unsung hero or heroine in history who excited you when you first learned about them? Please share!