Alexander von Humboldt
“Nature herself is sublimely eloquent. The stars as they sparkle in firmament fill us with delight and ecstasy, and yet they all move in orbit marked out with mathematical precision.”
– Personal Narrative of Travels of the Equinocial Regions of the New Continent during Years 1799–1804
Born in Prussia in 1769 to a wealthy aristocratic family, Friedrich Wilhelm Heinrich Alexander Freiherr von Humboldt’s childhood was characterised by a thirst for knowledge and a passion for discovery. Nicknamed ‘Little Apothecary’ for his nascent love of botany, Humboldt’s experimentations with the study of finance at university in his early adulthood eventually gave way to his desire to travel in search of pioneering scientific data.
Upon the death of his mother and the receipt of his sizeable inheritance, Humboldt applied to the Spanish government for permission to undertake a self-financed expedition to New World colonies previously open only to Spanish officials and Roman Catholic missions. The ensuing journey by canoe, on horseback and on foot, covered 6,000 miles across Central and South America – traversing the Orinoco & Amazon river basins, the Caribbean island of Cuba, the northern Andes mountains and the Viceroyalty of New Spain (modern-day Mexico).
Humboldt’s commitment to detailed fieldwork and observation, combined with the aesthetic Romanticism that distinguished his published work, came to form the founding principle of what is now known as Humboldtian science. This specific methodology was responsible for several ground-breaking discoveries and the development novel scientific theories throughout the duration of the Latin American expedition.
Exploring the Orinoco river and its tributaries in present-day Venezuela and Colombia led to Humboldt proving conclusively that the Orinoco and Amazon river systems were in fact linked through the Casiquiare canal, having successfully located and mapped the bifurcation.
A trail that snaked from Bogotá to Trujillo in Peru via the volcanic peaks of Ecuador, tracing the modern route of the Pan-American highway, constituted Humboldt’s journey through the northern Andes. It was during this time that Humboldt and his companion climbed Mt. Chimorazo, outside of Quito, to 5,878 metres without the luxury of modern mountaineering equipment. This impressive feat, and the associated mountain sickness suffered along the way, prompted Humboldt to become one of the first scientists to theorise on the causative relationship between the symptoms of altitude sickness and the lack of oxygen in the rarefied air of the Andean peaks.
In 1803, Humboldt sailed to Acapulco completing pioneering examinations of Mexican society and indigenous artefacts over the course of the next year, taking enormous interest in the cultural significance of climactic phenomena and astrology in the ancient civilisations of the pre-Columbian Americas.
Upon his return to Europe in 1804, Humboldt spent the remainder of his life publishing volumes of scientific works based on the content of his travel journals. Publishing pioneering studies on the influence of geographical features on the characteristics of flora and fauna, the role of eruptive forces in the development of the earth’s crust, and innovative theories on isothermic lines and magnetic fields; Humboldt became one of Europe’s most influential scientific figures.
Humboldt’s magnum opus was the four volumes of his book Kosmos; a comprehensive account of the universe as it was understood at the time that has since served as a foundational work in the fields of biogeography, botany, biology, meteorology and geomagnetic monitoring. Once labelled by Charles Darwin as ‘the greatest scientific traveller who ever lived’, Alexander von Humboldt’s remarkable legacy continues to this day in the many species and destinations around the globe that still bear his name.