His last name is something most animal lovers would have already heard of because of the Humboldt squid that lives in the Humboldt Current. This was named after Friedrich Wilhelm Heinrich Alexander von Humboldt. Simply called Alexander von Humboldt, he was a notable Prussian geographer, explorer, and naturalist. He is widely recognized for his works on botanical geography which is what laid the foundation for biogeography.
Early Life and Education
This naturalist and eager explorer was born on September 14, 1769, in Berlin, Germany. Alexander Georg von Humboldt, his father, had been an army officer who died in 1779 when he was only 9 years old, and he along with his brother Wilhelm were raised by their rather distant and cold mother. They belonged to a prominent Pomeranian family, and this was why they were able to afford tutors to provide them their basic education in mathematics and languages—classic subjects then.
When he was young, he already had a hobby of collecting and labeling different plants, insects, and shells. This was why he earned the moniker “little apothecary,” a playful title used to refer to young Alexander. Since he had an exposure to politics because of his father, he was set for a politically-inclined career.
Because of this he took courses in finance for a span of six months and he attended the University of Frankfurt. After a year he studied at Göttingen. During this time, his many interests had been clear to him and when he had his time off in 1789, Alexander went on an excursion on the River Rhine and was able to come up with the “Mineralogic Observations on Several Basalts on the River Rhine.”
Alexander had the opportunity to be under the wing of A.G. Werner, a famous geologist who taught at the Freiberg Academy of Mines. During his time there, Alexander met the man named George Forester who was Captain James Cook’s illustrator. Together, the tandem hiked in different places in Europe and because of his knowledge in geology as well as other fields, Alexander was able to work as a government mines inspector when he was 22 in Franconia, Prussia.
His mother died when he was 27, on the 19th of November, 1796 and this left him a good inheritance which was essential to his explorations. A year after his mother’s death, he left the government service and planned his travels with the botanist Aime Bonpland. He had always wanted to travel and explore, but had been bound to his political obligations. Together with Bonpland, he traveled to Madrid in order to obtain special permission along with passports from King Charles II for their plans on exploring South America.
It was on the 5th of June 1799 when Bonpland and von Humboldt sailed aboard the Pizarro. They had a 6-day stop at Tenerife, an island where the Teide volcano which they planned to explore was. On the 16th of July, they were on the shores of Cumana, Venezuela. During their stay in South America, Bonpland and Humboldt studied the topography, flora, and fauna of the continent. Come 1800, Humboldt had already mapped more than 1700 miles of the Orinco River.
He continued his explorations and even had a trip to the Andes along with a climb to the top of Mt. Chimborazo located in today’s modern Ecuador. Back then, this summit was believed to have been the highest peak in the world. They were not able to make it to the very top, but had ascended over 18,000 feet! While in this area, the ended the exploration by going to Lima, Peru, and this was when Humboldt was able to observe the transit of Mercury. He also studied how guano had fertilizing properties.
While he was on South America’s west coast, Alexander was able to measure and discover the Peruvian Current. This current is also referred to as the Humboldt Current. Bonpland and von Humboldt were still in South America come 1803, and this time, Alexander was offered a position to be one of the members of the Mexican cabinet.
Other notable experiences from his many explorations in South America included being able to see the Leonids on the nights of November 11 and 12 shortly after their arrival in South America, climbing the Avila Mount, and capturing some electric eels with Bonpland from which they received quite a number of electric shocks.
Other Travels and Achievements
After a great amount of exploration in South America, Bonpland and von Humboldt were successfully persuaded by a certain American counselor to pay a visit to Washington, D.C. There they stayed for three weeks and during their time there, Alexander was able to have several meetings with then president Thomas Jefferson who he became good friends with.
In 1804, Alexander travelled to Paris and then he wrote 30 volumes about his different field studies. He stayed in the area for 23 years and during his time there, had the opportunity to meet and have discussions with several other bright minds of his age.
After a time of traveling and self-publishing his reports, his fortune from the inheritance had ultimately run out. This made him find a stable source of income and he became one of the advisors of Prussia’s king. Later on, he was invited to Russia by the tsar himself and he advised them to have observatories all over the country and enlightened them on discoveries like permafrost.
For about a year from 1827, Alexander was in Berlin, giving public lectures. These lectures became so popular that there came a need for new assembly halls. As he was getting old, he decided to write everything which was then known about the earth in a work he called the Kosmos. The first volume was published in 1845. He was 76 then.
He suffered a minor stroke on February 24, 1857. Two years later, his health began to decline and at the age of 89, he died on May 6, 1859. Much of the man’s private life was a mystery since he destroyed most of his private letters. To this day, he is known as one of the most significant contributors to earth sciences.