An influential polymath: Alexander von Humboldt


Bronze sculpture of Humboldt by Ana Lilia Martin at Mirador Humboldt, northeast slope of Orotava valley, Tenerife where he stopped on his way to Latin America. Photo by Koppchen via Wikimedia Commons

Tuesday 26th January sees the announcement of the 2015 Costa Book of the Year winner. One of the books in the running for this prize is The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s new world by Andrea Wulf (382:2.c.201.21) which has already won the Costa Biography award for 2015 and would be a good starting point for finding out more about the life of Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859).

Humboldt Penguin (Spheniscus humboldti)

Humboldt penguin. Photo by Gregory Moine via Wikimedia Commons

A renowned figure in Germany and across Latin America, he is less well-known in this country – we may have heard of the Humboldt penguin, named after him (along with countless other species, world geographical features and place names) but most people know very little about the life of this extraordinary naturalist, explorer and geographer.

He was the younger brother of Wilhelm von Humboldt (linguist and founder of the Humboldt University in Berlin) and between 1799 and 1804 he made a ground-breaking exploration of Central and South America, accompanied by the French botanist Aimé Bonpland. They returned to Europe having amassed huge amounts of information and bringing with them large numbers of plant specimens. Humboldt spent the next twenty years or so in Paris publishing as much as he could of the data he had accumulated, in works such as Plantes equinoxiales (CCF.47.59-60) of 1808-1813 and Voyage aux régions équinoxiales du nouveau continent, fait en 1799, 1800, 1801, 1802, 1803 et 1804 (Tab.b.240), published 1814.


Detail from a large picture in Tab.b.240

Humboldt was famous in his own lifetime and deemed important enough to be written about while still alive. The UL has The travels and researches of Alexander von Humboldt of 1832 (enlarged 1851 edition, XIX.34.14) by William MacGillivray, Professor of Natural History at the University of Aberdeen. In the preface MacGillivray stated that “the celebrity which Baron Humboldt enjoys, and which he has earned by a life of laborious investigation and perilous enterprise, renders his name familiar to every person whose attention has been drawn to political statistics or natural philosophy. In the estimation of the learned no author of the present day occupies a higher place among those who have enlarged the boundaries of human knowledge.” His works were also widely translated during his lifetime: e.g., Personal narrative of travels to the equinoctial regions of America during the years 1799-1804 (XXIX.4.10-12).


Picture of Schiller, Wilhelm and Alexander von Humboldt and Goethe in Jena from 1860 Die Gartenlaube magazine via Wikimedia Commons

Humboldt met many significant figures including:

  • Georg Forster and Sir Joseph Banks (both of whom travelled with Captain Cook)
  • Goethe and Schiller, during the 1790s
  • Thomas Jefferson, on a brief visit to the United States at the end of his Latin American expedition
  • Simon Bolivar, while in Rome

He was also an inspiring and influential figure for many including Charles Darwin who referred to Humboldt’s work in his Voyage of the Beagle. Humboldt was a prolific letter writer: a quick subject search of our catalogue shows that we have 27 entries with the subject heading “Humboldt, Alexander von, 1769-1859—Correspondence”, over half of which have been published in the last twenty years.

For a slightly different slant on Humboldt, the 2012 book Transatlantic echoes: Alexander von Humboldt in world literature (746:17.c.201.132) contains excerpts of works from the last 200 years, ranging from Goethe to Daniel Kehlmann’s 2005 bestselling novel Die Vermessung der Welt (748:39.d.200.270) in which Humboldt’s life, as well as that of the mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss, is reimagined. The UL also has an English translation of this novel Measuring the world (C202.c.8009).



A recent addition to our holdings is Das graphische Gesamtwerk (S950.b.201.2604) which contains beautiful reproductions of Humboldt’s drawings from early works such as the 1793 Florae Fribergensis (the UL has an original copy too at MD.6.63), through work done on his Latin American voyage, to later work such as the 1853 Umrisse von Vulkanen aus den Cordilleren von Quito und Mexico (see Lib.3.85.5 for UL original copy).

Humboldt’s influence lives on in the 21st century. He invented isotherms, the temperature lines that are commonly used on weather maps, and to a certain extent predicted the problem of manmade climate change. In 2009 the UL marked the 150th anniversary of his death with an exhibition and the captions from this are available on our Germanic collections webpages. Humboldt deserves to be better known in the UK.

Katharine Dicks

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