Biography of Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859)

Naturalist and Explorer German, born September 14, 1769 in Berlin and died on May 6, 1859, in the same city. Alexander Von Humboldt is considered as the father of modern geography, in the same way as Charles Darwin goes to be the creator of modern biology. Both are not only the two most influential figures in the life of 19th century science, but two recent copies of a very old, so ancient tradition as Pliny the elder: the of nature travelers.


Humboldt, therefore, was not a geographical discoverer in the classical sense of the term, but rather more than that. Activity Explorer was tireless, physically toured jungles and mountains, crossed oceans and numerous accidents or geographical phenomena today carry his name: reasons enough to be included in that category. But beyond his travels and observations, Humboldt was also, and above all, a scientist of universal stature, a man able to reunite with her look unique and abstract, able to travel the world for, then subjecting it to rule and measure.

He was born in a family accommodated in Prussia FedericoGrande. His childhood took place in Berlin and its surroundings. There, in a small town called Tegel, stood the maternal mansion, "the castle of boredom", as he called it. His father died when he was nine years old, and his mother received treatment severe and distant, something that seems to explain - according to all his biographers-the serious emotional shortcomings that presided over its life. Soon it is devoted to the natural sciences. Already as a teenager he liked to collect and collect shells, butterflies and stones in their walks in Tegel, to the point that he was called "the little apothecary". As a member of the aristocracy (his father was Chamberlain of the King), he received a careful education and frequented scholars circles. One of them was the Jewish physician and disciple of Kant, Marcus Hertz, whose wife was one of the features of the German enlightenment gatherings. It was in this type of meeting where physics and experimental world lived with music, languages, philosophy, and other forms of culture.

Their preceptors include the physiocrat and liberal Dohm and botanical Willdenow, who the man intended to formulate the geography of plants learned the first taxonomic concepts. He studied in Frankfurt an der Oder together with his brother Wilhelm, who would also become a scholar of international renown in the field of Philology. In 1789 he moved to the University of Gottinga. There he met the young count of Metternich, future architect of European order after the Napoleonic wars, and the great archaeologist and classical philologist Heyne. But it was certainly George Forster, among all his teachers, which produced greater imprint. Companion of Captain Cook in his travels around the world, Forster took the young Humboldt in a tour by several European countries in the year of 1790. Together visited the Netherlands, England and France. Thanks to this trip, Humboldt was contacted by naturalists as Banks and astronomers such as Herschel, and could witness the French Revolution live, something that would leave him an indelible impression. Since then, baron of Humboldt was a self-confessed admirer of the Republican ideas.

During the 1990s, his biography was linked to the Prussian administration of mines. He studied at the mining school of Freiburg, under the direction of the great geologist Werner, and soon went on to play positions of responsibility as an officer of the Department. These years date from their first contributions to the field of geology and mineralogy, as well as his first explorations by the basin of the Rhine and Franconia. In 1797 he left his brilliant career to devote himself only to the study of the natural sciences. At Jena he met Schiller and Goethe, whose influence on the philosophical thought of our author was notable, and soon marched back to Paris to lock already its most lasting professional relationship with naturalist Aimé Bonpland, Spanish America travel mate.

In 1799 it took form his old dream of a great scientific exploration in the tropics. The Spanish authorities gave him permission to move along with Bonpland to American domains. They departed from La Coruña in the Corvette "Pizarro", and after the regulatory level in the Canary Islands, where Humboldt ascended to the Teide (3,718 m), landed at Cumaná in July of that year.

Sea of clouds and the Teide seen from the Garajonay National Park.

They explored part of the territory that today corresponds to Venezuela and confirmed the bifurcation of the Orinoco. They went into the famous Cave of Guacharo, of 472 m depth, becoming the forerunners of scientific speleology in Latin America, and in the field of Ornithology contributed valuable information, discover a new genus and species of bird, Steatornis caripensis, popularly known as Guácharo.

In 1800 went to Cuba and the year next returned to the continent: Cartagena de Indias, the Andean plateau and the Kingdom of Quito occupied the first years of the new century to our researchers. There he did the celebrated ascent of the volcano Chimborazo, a feat which earned him great reputation since it became the 5,800 meters, something never achieved by any human being before. In 1803 they arrived in Acapulco. They used a year in travel and study various provinces of new Spain. After a last visit to Havana and a light stay in Philadelphia and Washington, the new world they left in July 1804.

Perhaps it would be easier to say in which branch of knowledge not worked Humboldt during his exploration of the American continent. Their observations, measurements, studies and experiments covered most of the natural sciences: analysis of soils, barometric inquiries, botanical classifications and geography of plants, trials on the chemical of the mineral properties and works on environmental illness and health are just some of them. Thus for example, it was the first to draw the isotherm lines used today in the weather maps, and connecting all those dots representing identical temperature values at a time or time certain. Next Bonpland collected and studied numerous plants, vegetable and its travel associations discovered a very important ecological principle: the relationship between latitude and altitude. In the Pacific Ocean, it noted an ocean current which then was baptized with its name, Humboldt current.

The magnificent Edition of his work on the American nature consists of more than 30 volumes, published mainly in French during their prolonged stay in Paris, where he lived most of the time between 1804 and 1827. The work is entitled general journey to the equinoctial regions of the new continent, and his most famous monographs pictures of nature, a text which combines the scientific gaze and the poetry, or the views of mountain ranges, include a work that adds to the beautiful illustrations and geographical knowledge great contributions to anthropology of pre-Columbian cultures. There are also the political trials of the new Spain and Cuba, great inventories of natural and economic resources of both territories; and, of course, the essay on the geographical distribution of plants, different physical and geographical atlas and several monographs on astronomy and geology. With them, Humboldt became the father of biogeography, climate geography, seismology, the phytogeography and maritime physics.

All of which is Digest of some form in the Cosmos (1845-1858), his most ambitious work. Written during the final stretch of his life in Berlin, Cosmos is a unique testimony of a universal and encyclopedic knowledge. Conceived as a comprehensive review of all natural sciences, Humboldt also wanted to be a book appealing and accessible to all mankind. In this regard, Cosmos was not only the great "book of nature" of the modern age (thus had titled Alberto Magno its compendium of natural knowledge in the middle ages), but who also wanted to be the first great book of scientific popularization of contemporary times. His great intellectual merit resides in put in game, and under a same look, all the knowledge of different disciplines. When Humboldt studied the available serial of volcanoes around the globe, or the relationship between altitude and morphology of plants, is in fact laying the groundwork for an experimental, comparative and analytical method which allows us to understand the land and as a whole, natural phenomena a sum of forces and balances related to each other, to speak on their termsa physics of the globe.

Cosmos also includes observations made by Humboldt in his other great scientific exploration, which took place in 1829 by the Ural mountains, Asia, and the Caspian Sea. Other scientific disciplines also cultivated by the great Prussian Sage were the galvanism, chemistry, Physiology and experimental physics. With he collaborated Gay-Lussac, Arago, Poisson, Cuvier, Volta, Morse, Kunth, Caldas, Mutis and many others among the most prestigious scientists of his time. Her relationship with Goethe and the Sturm und Drang is a commonplace among specialists. And in fact it seems as if everything would fit him to Humboldt: illustration and romanticism, history of phenomena and ideas, the old and the new world, the natural sciences and the social. It is fair to say, therefore, that his figure was on a par with the great universal scholars of the modern West: Leonardo, Descartes, Leibniz, Newton.

In 1829, at the age of 60, he undertook a journey to Russia, spanned across Siberia and arrived to the Chinese border. You could check the geological, ecological and geographical differences of two great continents, and meteorological observations led him to establish the "principle of continentality", by which the inner regions of the continents have extreme seasonal temperatures, due to the great distance from the ocean and therefore the absence of its moderate influence.

Man not only theory, but also action, Humboldt live profile of the scholar and the scanner. This perspective perhaps understand better their profound political vocation. The most famous scientist of his time, a member of more than one hundred academies around the world, was also Adviser to Kings, Presidents, and sovereigns, which include zar Nicolás, King Luis Felipe de Francia or Prince Guillermo de Prusia. After the Napoleonic wars, he was at the Congress of Aachen and in the Verona, two of the many samples of his diplomatic activity. He also met and maintained correspondence with Bolívar, the liberator of much of Spanish America, and Jefferson, one of the founding fathers of the United States. Staunch enemy of slavery, Humboldt championed the ideals of Justice and freedom in numerous episodes of his long life. It is not surprising, therefore, that countries like Mexico, Colombia or Venezuela considers it a bastion of intellectual emancipation, nor that France, Germany or Spain rescheduled a legacy like his. Maybe we miss the cosmopolitan air that presided over its life. And in any case, does not seem misguided conclude by saying that, through the study of nature, Humboldt tried to put into practice its repeated currency: "man must aspire to big and good".



Voyage aux régions equinoxiales du Nouveau Continent (1799-1804); divided into six thematic groups: general description, zoology, "political" and geographical studies of Mexico, astronomy, geography of plants and botany. Die Jugendbriefe Alexander von Humboldts 1787-1799, Edition directed by Ilse Jahn and Fritz G. Lange, Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1793, pp. 648-682 (his correspondence during his stay in Spain). Lettres américaines d'Alexandre de Humboldt (1798-1807), Edition directed by E. T. Hamy, Paris: E. Guilmoto, 1905.


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Thomas F. GLICK