Alexander Von Humboldt
The great Agassiz, in his eloquent address, in Boston, on the hundredth
anniversary of the birth of Humboldt, said: "All the fundamental facts
of popular education in physical science, beyond the merest elementary
instruction, we owe to him. We are reaping daily in every school
throughout the broad land, where education is the heritage of the
poorest child, the intellectual harvest sown by him.
"There is not a text-book of geography, or a school atlas in the hands
of our children to-day, which does not bear, however blurred and
defaced, the impress of his great mind. But for him our geographies
would be mere enumerations of localities and statistics. He first
suggested the graphic methods of representing natural phenomena which
are now universally adopted. The first geological sections, the first
sections across an entire continent, the first averages of climate
illustrated by lines, were his. Every school-boy is familiar with his
methods now, but he does not know that Humboldt is his teacher...."
Naturally we ask how such a man rose to fame, and what incited him to
stand among the few intellectual leaders of the world.
Frederick William Henry Alexander von Humboldt was born September 14,
1769, in Berlin, the same year as Baron Cuvier. Unlike Cuvier, he came
into a home of wealth and culture. His father was a Prussian officer and
chamberlain to the king. His mother, the widow of Baron von Hollwede,
married Major von Humboldt when he was forty-six years old, bringing
into the family much landed property. Three children were born to them,
a daughter who died in infancy, and the famous brothers, William and
Alexander, the former two years older than the latter.
The father, an exceedingly amiable and benevolent man, died when
Alexander was but ten years old. The mother, left with her two sons, was
wise enough to select superior tutors for them, deeming a good education
their best preparation for a useful life.
Much of their time was spent at their summer home at Tegel, on the banks
of the Havel, about eight miles from Berlin. In 1778 Goethe went there
for a visit, and the two Humboldt lads, nine and eleven years of age,
played and talked with the leading mind of Germany.
The children were not altogether happy there, as Alexander wrote a
friend years afterward. "Vine-clad hills which here we call mountains,
extensive plantations of foreign trees, the meadows surrounding the
house, and lovely views of the lake with its picturesque banks awaiting
the beholder at every turn, render this place undoubtedly one of the
most attractive residences in the neighborhood. If, in addition, you
picture to yourself the high degree of luxury and taste that reigns in
our home, you will indeed be surprised when I tell you that I never
visit this place without a certain feeling of melancholy.... I passed
most of that unhappy time (my youthful days) here at Tegel, among people
who loved me, and showed me kindness, but with whom I had not the least
sympathy, where I was subjected to a thousand restraints and much
self-imposed solitude, and where I was often placed in circumstances
that obliged me to maintain a close reserve, and to make continual
"Now that I am my own master, and living here without restraint, I am
unable to yield myself to the charms of which nature is here so
prodigal, because I am met at every turn by painful recollections of my
childhood, which even the inanimate objects around me are continually
awakening. Sad as such recollections are, however, they are interesting
from the thought that it was just my residence here which exercised so
powerful an influence in the formation of my character and the direction
of my tastes to the study of nature."
Much which seems trying and unsatisfactory is, after all, our best
discipline for life. The strongest and noblest characters are not
developed in the perpetual sunshine of happiness. Rain and sun are alike
necessary for growth.
Alexander early showed great fondness for natural history, collecting
flowers, plants, butterflies, shells, and stones, so that he was called
the "Little Apothecary." He likewise found great delight in drawing. He
says of himself: "Until I reached the age of sixteen, I showed little
inclination for scientific pursuits. I was of a restless disposition,
and wished to be a soldier. This choice was displeasing to my family,
who were desirous that I should devote myself to the study of finance,
so that I had no opportunity of attending a course of botany or
chemistry; I am self-taught in almost all the sciences with which I am
now so occupied, and I acquired them comparatively late in life. Of the
science of botany I never so much as heard till I formed the
acquaintance in 1788 of Herr Willdenow, a youth of my own age, who had
just been publishing a Flora of Berlin. His gentle and amiable character
stimulated the interest I felt in his pursuits. I never received any
lessons professedly, but I used to bring him the specimens I collected,
and he gave me their classifications. I became passionately devoted to
botany, and took especial interest in the study of cryptogamia. The
sight of exotic plants, even when only as dried specimens in an
herbarium, fired my imagination with the pleasure that would be derived
from the view of a tropical vegetation in southern lands."
At sixteen, then, the boy did not know for what he was best fitted in
life. How important for young men and women to study themselves, and
know their own tastes and capacities! At nineteen he had never heard of
botany, and yet he became one of the most distinguished of botanists!
The boy also longed to go to sea, not an unusual desire in restless and
ambitious natures. But he was frail in body, and gave little evidence
that he would ever be able to accomplish any of the things for which he
At nineteen he was ready for college, and with his brother entered at
Frankfort-on-the-Oder. He gave his time largely to finance and political
economy, by his mother's desire, that he might be able to act in some
capacity under the government.
At college, as ever after in life, he found one devoted friend, who
became his inseparable companion. At Frankfort, it was Wegener, a young
theologian, with a warm heart, and great zeal for knowledge. Nor did
this friendship cease when he went to Goettingen some months later, for
better opportunities in the study of science. He wrote to Wegener: "If
God only spare us, nothing can break the bond between two friends who
are to each other more than brothers.... My fervent love and sincere
friendship for you are as imperishable as the soul which gives them
birth.... How happy, how inexpressibly happy should I be, if I had a
friend like you by my side!... I doubt not that among eight hundred men
there must be some with whom I could form a friendship, but how long is
it often before we find each other out! Were not you and I acquainted
for three months before we discovered how completely we were made one
for the other? To be without a friend, what an existence! And where can
I hope to find a friend whom I could place by your side in my
These words seem like those of a lover, or an affectionate woman, but
they come from a mind that now, as in after years, towered like a giant
oak in the trees of a forest. Beautiful union of brain and heart! Such
only makes an ideal character.
Humboldt had already met Willdenow, and begun to love botany. Again he
writes to Wegener: "I have just come in from a solitary walk in the
Thiergarten,"--he was for a short time in Berlin,--"where I have been
seeking for mosses, lichens, and fungi, which are just now in
perfection. How sad to wander about alone! And yet there is something
attractive in this solitude, when occupied with nature.... I am
collecting materials for a work on the various properties of plants,
medicinal properties excepted; it is a work requiring such great
research, and such a profound knowledge of botany, as to be far beyond
my unassisted powers, and I am therefore endeavoring to enlist the
cooeperation of several of my friends.... Pray do not imagine that I am
going to appear as an author forthwith; I do not intend that shall
happen for the next ten years, and by that time I trust I shall have
discovered something startlingly new and important."
Goettingen was now at the height of its glory. Humboldt attended courses
of lectures on archaeology, on trade and commerce, on light, heat, and
electricity, on agriculture, and on ancient tragic poets, under Heyne,
of whom he said, "Heyne is undoubtedly the man to whom this century is
the most deeply indebted; to him we owe the spread of religious
enlightenment, by means of the education and training he has instituted
for young village school-masters; to him is due the introduction of a
more liberal tone of thought, the establishment of a literary
archaeology, and the first association of the principles of aesthetics
with the study of philology."
Humboldt was also fond of Greek. He said, "The more I know of the Greek
language, the more am I confirmed in my preconceived opinion, that it is
the true foundation for all the higher branches of learning."
With some friends, he soon founded the Philosophical Society, which,
with the admirable libraries and museums at hand, became of great
assistance to the students.
The next year, 1790, he had become so interested in science, that he
wrote Wegener: "I was away from Goettingen for two months, spending the
vacation in making a scientific tour with a Herr van Genns, a Dutchman
with whom I became acquainted through his writings on botanical
subjects.... Amid the numberless distractions of the journey, which was
made sometimes on foot and sometimes by carriage, and with the incessant
occupation of packing up minerals and plants, I was not very well able
to write to you." The result of this tour was a pamphlet, "Mineralogical
Observations on some Basalts of the Rhine." His next works were two
small treatises, "The Aqueous Origin of Basalt," and "The Metallic Seams
in the Basalt at Unkel." And this youth of twenty-one was self-taught
both in mineralogy and geology!
The wonder was not so great, perhaps, that a young man of his age should
have written these sketches, as that, being wealthy and of the best
social position, the temptations to ease and enjoyment did not draw him
away from such subjects. Poverty may not be a delight, but the larger
part of the world's work has been done under its stimulus. Wealth should
be an incentive, because it gives leisure for careful study, but this is
not always the case.
At Goettingen, Humboldt found a friend among the eight hundred. At the
house of Heyne he made the acquaintance of George Foster, Heyne's
son-in-law, a man who exerted a remarkable and lasting influence over
him. Foster was thirty-six; Humboldt, fifteen years his junior. He had
been around the world with Captain Cook in his second voyage, and had
published an able book upon the subject. He was skilled in chemistry,
philosophy, literature, and politics, understood Latin, Greek, French,
English, Dutch, and Italian, and was somewhat conversant with the
Swedish, Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, and Polish languages.
The influence of such a man can well be imagined. He became a guiding
star to the young Goettingen student. If we could but estimate the value
of right friendships in life! We flatter ourselves that we are too
strong to be influenced, and yet we are greatly influenced for good or
for evil by those with whom we associate. Humboldt always chose
intellectual friends, and the natural result followed.
In the spring of 1790, he left Goettingen, and, with Foster and Van
Genns, took a journey to the Lower Rhine, Holland, Belgium, England, and
France, studying docks, mines, botanic gardens, manufactures, and
churches, and visiting literary celebrities. Still the new friends did
not take the place of the old, for he writes to Wegener: "I beseech you,
dearest Wegener, by all the affection which you know I bear you, never
to forget our brotherly love and friendship. You are infinitely more to
me than I can ever be to you. I have now seen the most celebrated places
in Germany, Holland, and England--but, believe me, I have in seeing them
never been so happy as while sitting in Steinbart's arm-chair."
The influence of this journey was never lost. Sixty-eight years
afterward, Humboldt said: "For the space of thirty years I have never
known leisure but of an evening, and the half-century that I have spent
in this ceaseless activity has been occupied in telling myself and
others how much I owe my teacher and friend George Foster in the
generalization of my views on nature, and in the strengthening and
development of that which had already dawned in me, before those happy
days of intimate friendship."
In the latter part of 1790, Humboldt went to Hamburg, to enter the
School of Commerce. He wished to study political economy further, and to
learn practical book-keeping. He wrote to a friend: "I am contented with
my mode of life at Hamburg, but not happy, less happy even than at
Goettingen, where the monotony of my existence was relieved by the
society of one or two friends and the vicinity of some moss-grown
mountains. I am, however, always contented when I feel that I am
accomplishing the purpose I have in view.... My leisure hours are
occupied with geology and botany.... In addition, I have begun to learn
Danish and Swedish."
To Wegener he writes: "I have made considerable progress in general
information, and I am beginning to be somewhat more satisfied with my
attainments. I worked very hard at Goettingen, but all I have learned
makes me feel only the more keenly how much remains still to know. My
health suffered severely, but improved somewhat during my journey with
Foster; yet even here I continue so closely occupied that I find it
difficult to spare myself. There is an eager impulse within me, which
often carries me, I fear, beyond the bounds of reason; and yet such
impetuosity is always necessary to insure success."
The "eager impulse" was a sure indication of something to be
accomplished by and by. Success does not come with half-hearted effort;
it comes only through a force and persistence that will allow no
barriers between us and the goal.
At Easter, 1791, Humboldt left Hamburg and hastened to the famous School
of Mines at Freiberg, to study under the celebrated Werner. Here, as
ever, he attached one ardent friend to himself, Freiesleben, a student
in geology. Here every moment was occupied. He studied the works of the
French chemists; Guyton de Moreau, Fourcroy, Lavoisier, and Berthollet.
He was daily in the mines, from six o'clock till twelve. He crowded six
lectures into each afternoon. He made a study of the vegetation of that
lower world, from which the sunlight is ever excluded, and the results
were used later in his comprehensive work, "Flora Subterranea
Fribergensis." He wrote articles for several scientific journals. A busy
life, indeed, for the young man of twenty-two!
His friend Freiesleben says of Humboldt at this time:--
"The salient points of his attractive character lay in his imperturbable
good-nature, his benevolence and charity, his remarkable and unselfish
amiability, his susceptibility of friendship and appreciation of
nature; simplicity, candor, and the absence of all pretension
characterized his whole being; he possessed conversational powers that
made him always lively and entertaining, together with a degree of wit
and humor that led him sometimes to waggishness. It was these admirable
qualities which in later years enabled him to soften and attach to
himself the untutored savages, among whom he dwelt for months at a time,
which obtained for him in the civilized world admiration and sympathy
wherever he went, and which gained for him, while a mere student, the
esteem and devotion of all classes at Freiberg.
"He was kindly disposed towards every one, and knew how to make himself
useful and entertaining in every circle of society; and it was only
against every species of inhumanity and coarseness, against every kind
of insolence, injustice, or cruelty, that he ever manifested either
scorn or indignation."
How the world loves "unselfish amiability;" a person who goes through
life thinking for others, not irritable, not supersensitive, not
On Humboldt's return to Berlin in 1792, he was at once made "Assessor in
the Administrative Department of Mines and Smelting Works," a position
for which he had previously applied. As a rule, places do not seek
persons, however brilliant; they must seek places.
This was a fine opening for a young man, not yet twenty-three. He went
to work with unbounded energy. He investigated the general form of
mountains, collected information as to former methods of working the
mines, by having three chests of mining documents, belonging to the
sixteenth century, brought to him for careful study, and made a report
on the salt, alum, and vitriol works, and on the porcelain manufactory.
The government authorities were so pleased with his thorough report that
he was appointed superintendent of mines in the two Franconian duchies.
He wrote to Freiesleben: "I am quite intoxicated with joy.... Do not
feel anxious about my health; I shall take care not to over-exert
myself, and after the first the work will not be heavy. I cannot
conclude without acknowledging that it is again to you that I am
indebted for this happiness; indeed I feel it only too keenly. What
knowledge have I, dear Freiesleben, that has not been taught me by
you!... How sweet is the thought to me that it is to you that I owe all
this; it seems as if it bound me closer to you, as if I carried
something about me that had been planted within me and cultivated by
Thus all through life was the appreciative, warm-hearted man glad to
show his gratitude for the stimulus of intellectual friends.
Who does not love to be appreciated! How many of us wait to say kind
things to our friends until death makes it impossible!
Again he wrote: "I possess a certain amount of vanity, and am willing to
confess it; but I know the power of my own will, and I feel that
whatever I set myself to do I shall do well."
While so earnestly engaged in study, Humboldt, with his benevolent
heart, could not see the children of the miners grow up in ignorance.
He therefore opened free schools for them, and paid the teachers from
his own purse. Not many young men at twenty-four would have thought of
so admirable a plan.
Meantime he was experiencing the first keen joy of fame. The Elector of
Saxony had sent the author of "Flora Fribergensis" a gold medal. The
Swedish botanist Vahl had named a magnificent species of an East Indian
laurel after him, the laurifolia Humboldtia. It had paid to be a
student; to be led by the "eager impulse" within him.
The next year he wrote to Freiesleben:--
"You are aware that I am quite mad enough to be engaged upon three books
at once.... I have discovered several new lichens. I have also been
occupied upon the history of the weaving of the ancients.... My head is
quite distracted with all I have to attend to--mining, banking,
manufacturing, and organizing; ... the mines, however, are
prospering.... I am promoted to be counsellor of mines at Berlin, with a
salary, probably, of fifteen hundred thalers (here I have four hundred),
and, after remaining there a few months, I shall most likely be
appointed director of mines, either in Westphalia or Rothenburg, and
receive from two thousand to three thousand thalers. I tell you
everything, and open my heart to you."
In 1795, having resigned his position in the service of the state,
because of his desire for travel and scientific work, with two friends,
Freiesleben, and Lieutenant Reinhard von Haften, of Westphalia, he
journeyed to Venice, going through the Tyrol and the Alps into
Switzerland. They visited the mountains around Schaffhausen, Zuerich, and
Berne, and such notable men of science as De Luc, Pictet, and Saussure.
As Freiesleben said, "No subject having any reference to the physical
constitution of the earth, the atmosphere, or any point of natural
history, was allowed to escape his attention."
An especial bond united Humboldt and the highly educated Von Haften,
since between the latter's sister Minette and the young scientist there
existed a devoted affection. This was cherished for ten years, but
Humboldt's life of travel and exposure prevented a union which both
ardently desired. He sacrificed his affections to science, and the
loneliness of his later years proved the unwisdom of his choice.
On his return home, Humboldt set himself earnestly to the writing of two
books: one on geology, the disposition of strata in mountain masses; the
other on the "Excitability of the Nerves and Muscles," describing over
four thousand experiments. His devotion to science was shown by the
painful experiments upon his own body, which brought permanent harm to
his nervous system.
He wrote to a friend: "I applied two blisters to my back, each of the
size of a crown-piece, and covering respectively the trapezius and
deltoid muscles.... When the blisters were cut, and contact made with
zinc and silver, I experienced a sharp pain, which was so severe that
the trapezius muscle swelled considerably, and the quivering was
communicated upwards to the base of the skull and the spinous processes
of the vertebrae."
He also experimented with the noxious gases in mines, inventing lamps
which were the forerunner of Sir Humphrey Davy's. Sometimes he was
deprived of consciousness by the gases and saved only by the timely aid
Always longing for foreign travel, he went to Weimar, to make himself
more fully ready for it, especially by the study of anatomy. Here lived
his brother William, who had married a brilliant and intellectual woman,
the intimate friend of the wife of Schiller.
Here Humboldt and Goethe became earnest friends. Goethe says: "During
Humboldt's visit, my time has been usefully and agreeably spent; his
presence has had the effect of arousing from its winter sleep my taste
for natural science." Years afterward Goethe said to Eckermann:
"Alexander von Humboldt has been with me for some hours this morning;
what an extraordinary man he is! Though I have known him for so long, I
am always struck with fresh amazement in his company. He may be said to
be without a rival in extent of information and acquaintance with
existing sciences. He possesses, too, a versatility of genius which I
have never seen equalled. Whatever may be the subject broached, he
seems quite at home in it, and showers upon us treasures in profusion
from his stores of knowledge. He resembles a living fountain, whence
flow many streams, yielding to all comers a quickening and refreshing
draught. He will remain here a few days, and I already feel that I shall
have lived through years in the time."
That Humboldt valued this friendship is shown by the dedication to
Goethe of the first part of his "Travels in America."
The project of foreign travel was long delayed by sickness, war, and
various disappointments. But, in life, obstacles are the common lot of
mortals, and he alone is wise who breasts them cheerfully, patiently,
and persistently. Humboldt said, "It is impossible not to feel the
severity of this disappointment; but it is the part of a man to work,
and not to yield to unavailing regrets."
"Hard! well, and what of that?
Didst fancy life one summer holiday,
With lessons none to learn, and naught but play?
Go, get thee to thy task. Conquer or die!
It must be learned. Learn it then, patiently."
At last, in 1799, when Humboldt was thirty, the long contemplated
journey to South America was about to be realized. He had already
published some astronomical treatises on the determination of latitudes,
trigonometrical measures of the Alpine ranges, etc.; had given lectures
in Paris, before the National Institute, on the nature of nitrous gas,
and the possibility of a more exact analysis of the atmosphere; and had
spent some time in Spain, with the well known botanist Bonpland, in
collecting plants, and making observations in connection with
meteorology, geology, and magnetism. While at Madrid, through Herr von
Forell, a distinguished patron of science, Humboldt was received at
court and obtained permission of the king to visit the Spanish colonies
At his own expense, the best scientific instruments were procured, and
June 5, 1799, at two o'clock in the afternoon, he and Bonpland, with
their crew and a few others, sailed away, in the corvette Pizarro, for a
five years' journey. He sent tender farewell messages back to "his
family," as he called William's children, and then stifled any feelings
of loneliness or homesickness which he had in his heart, by his favorite
motto, "Man must ever strive after all that is good and great."
June 20, they were at the foot of the Peak of Teneriffe. He wrote to his
brother: "I am quite in a state of ecstasy at finding myself at length
on African soil, surrounded by cocoa-nut palms and bananas.... I
returned last night from an excursion up the peak. What an amazing
scene! What a gratification! We descended some way into the crater,
perhaps farther than any previous scientific traveller.... What a
remarkable spectacle was presented to us at this height of eleven
thousand five hundred feet.... At two in the morning we were already on
our way towards the last cone. The heavens were bright with stars, and
the moon shone with a gentle radiance; but this calm was soon to be
disturbed. The storm raged violently round the summit; we were obliged
to cling fast to the edge of the crater. The wind rushed through the
rifts with a noise like thunder, while a veil of cloud separated us from
the world below."
After a voyage of nineteen days, the ship entered the harbor of Cumana,
on the north coast of South America. Here they enjoyed the new and
strange scenes; the houses built of satin-wood; the copper-colored
Indians outside the town, living in bamboo huts, covered with the leaves
of the cocoa-nut palm; these great trees from fifty to sixty feet high,
with large red bunches of flowers. "Even the crabs," said Humboldt, "are
sky-blue and gold!"
By November they had dried more than sixteen hundred plants, and
described about six hundred new varieties. He had taken observations of
the solar eclipse of October 28, and so severely burnt his face that he
was obliged to remain in bed for two days.
Going to Caracas, they spent two months and a half climbing mountains,
visiting hot springs, and forming an intimate acquaintance with tigers,
crocodiles, monkeys, and boa constrictors. Here they discovered the
singular cow-tree, with dry and tough leaves, but which gives out a
sweet nourishing milk when an incision is made in its stem. "At sunrise
this vegetable spring is the richest: then the negroes and the natives
come from all sides, provided with large vessels to collect the milk,
which turns yellow and thickens on the surface."
In February, 1800, the travellers traced the water system of the
Orinoco, often in the midst of danger. Once, in a severe storm, their
boat was two-thirds full of water. "Our position," says Humboldt, "was
truly appalling; the shore was distant from us more than a mile, where a
number of crocodiles could be discerned lying half out of the water.
Even if we had gained the shore against the fury of the waves and the
voracity of the crocodiles, we should infallibly have either perished
from hunger or been torn in pieces by the tigers, for the woods upon
these shores are so dense and so intertwined with lianas as to be
absolutely impenetrable. The strongest man, axe in hand, could hardly
make his way in twenty days for the distance of a league. The river too
is so little frequented that even an Indian canoe scarcely passes
oftener than once in two months. At this most momentous and perilous
crisis a gust of wind filled the sails of our little vessel and effected
in a marvellous manner our deliverance."
To his botanist friend, Willdenow, he writes:--"During four months of
this journey we passed the night in forests, surrounded by crocodiles,
boa constrictors, and tigers, which are here bold enough to attack a
canoe, while for food we had nothing better than rice, ants, bananas,
and occasionally the flesh of monkeys, with only the waters of the
Orinoco wherewith to quench our thirst. Thus have we with difficulty
toiled, our hands and faces swollen with mosquito bites, from Mondvaca
to the volcano of Duida, from the limits of Quito to the frontier of
Surinam--through tracts of country extending over twenty thousand square
miles, in which no Indian is to be met with, and where the traveller
encounters only apes or serpents.
"In Guiana the mosquitoes abound in such clouds as to darken the air,
and, as it is absolutely necessary to keep head and hands constantly
covered, no writing can be done by daylight; the intolerable pain
produced by the attacks of these insects renders it impossible to hold
the pen steadily. All our work had therefore to be carried on by the
light of a fire, in an Indian hut, where no ray of sunlight could
penetrate, and into which we had to creep on our hands and knees. Here,
if we escaped the torment of the mosquitoes, we were almost choked by
the smoke. At Maypures, we and the Indians took refuge in the midst of
the cascade, where the spray from the foaming stream kept off the
insects. At Higuerote, the people are accustomed at night to lie buried
three or four inches deep in sand, with only the head exposed."
Sometimes twenty-four Indians were in Humboldt's employ for months
together, and fourteen mules were required to carry his instruments and
After a year and a half spent in South America, Humboldt sailed for
Cuba, where he remained for several months, collecting material for his
"Political Essay on the Island of Cuba." From there he went to Quito, in
Ecuador, crossing one of the most difficult passes in the Andes, "the
path so narrow that it rarely exceeds twelve or sixteen inches in width,
and for the most part resembles an open gallery cut in the rock," and
the Paramos of Pasto, "desert regions where, at a height of about twelve
thousand feet above the sea, all vegetation ceases, and the cold is so
intense as to penetrate to the very bones."
In June, 1802, they reached Quito, where, five years previously, an
earthquake had destroyed forty thousand people. This month they made the
ascent of Chimborazo, at that time regarded as the highest mountain in
the world. "At certain places," he says, "where it was very steep, we
were obliged to use both hands and feet, and the edges of the rock were
so sharp that we were painfully cut, especially on our hands." As they
climbed on, "one after another, we all began to feel indisposed, and
experienced a feeling of nausea accompanied by giddiness, which was far
more distressing than the difficulty of breathing.... Blood exuded from
the lips and gums, and the eyes became bloodshot.... A few rock-lichens
were to be observed above the line of perpetual snow, at a height of
sixteen thousand nine hundred and twenty feet; the last green moss we
noticed was growing about twenty-six hundred feet lower. A butterfly was
captured by M. Bonpland, at a height of fifteen thousand feet, and a
fly was observed sixteen hundred feet higher.... When we were at a
height of about seventeen thousand four hundred feet we encountered a
violent hailstorm." The height of the mountain is over twenty-one
The intrepid Humboldt four times crossed the Andes; he travelled over
Peru; he called attention to the fertilizing properties of guano, and
then he sailed for Mexico, where he remained for a year. Here he met a
lady greatly esteemed in that country, called the "fair Rodriguez," the
most beautiful woman he had seen in his journeys, but whom he admired
more "for her graces of mind than her beauty of person." He regarded her
as an American Madame de Stael. It is asserted that the grave man of
science was deeply interested, but it was too late--she was already the
wife of another, and had two children. Humboldt, like most other great
men, all his life enjoyed the society of intellectual women, who were a
After two months passed at Havana, Humboldt came to the United States,
spending three weeks with President Jefferson, at his home at
Monticello. He never failed to speak in grateful terms of the courtesy
he received from Americans. He studied carefully our institutions, and
greatly admired the republic; slavery alone saddened him.
On July 9, 1804, after five years of absence, he set sail for France.
Europe received him with universal joy. He had been reported dead. He
was thirty-five, handsome, and famous. He had travelled over forty
thousand miles, and brought back over sixty thousand specimens of
plants. He was made a member of the Royal Academy of Sciences in Berlin,
and later a member of the Legion of Honor, and of about one hundred and
fifty other societies; indeed, of all the great associations of the
And now the result of his travels must be given to the world in books.
While he was preparing them, he yet found time to spend months together
in the Ecole Polytechnique, experimenting in chemistry with his devoted
friend Gay-Lussac; with Biot, he made investigations in magnetism; with
Arago, in astronomy; with Cuvier, in anatomy.
Most of the time from 1808 to 1827, nineteen years, he remained in
Paris, devoting his time to his great work. In the forenoons he usually
studied and experimented; from twelve to seven he wrote, and then, if
his evenings were spent socially, he wrote again from midnight till
half-past two, usually allowing himself only four hours for sleep. So
popular was he that he often went to five receptions in an evening.
Year after year his works on America appeared, till twenty-nine volumes
were published! The first part was entitled, "Voyage in the Equatorial
Regions of the New Continent." This described a portion of his journey
in three volumes; views of the Cordilleras and the native peoples of
America, one volume with sixty plates; an atlas of the new continent,
with thirty-nine maps; a critical examination of the history of the
geography of the middle ages, in five volumes. The second part related
largely to zooelogy and comparative anatomy in the new regions; the third
part related chiefly to Mexico; the fourth part to astronomical
observations, measurement with the barometer, etc.; the fifth part,
geology, and the geography of plants; the sixth part, plants in Mexico,
Cuba, and South America, in two volumes, with nearly one hundred and
fifty engravings; two volumes more, with one hundred and twenty colored
plates; seven volumes of new species, with seven hundred engravings, and
several other books. The expense of bringing out these works was
enormous; the copper-plate illustrations cost in printing and paper
alone about one hundred and seventy thousand dollars.
As the price of the volumes was about twenty-seven hundred dollars, the
number of purchasers was comparatively limited. Humboldt had used all
his fortune in his journeys and in publishing his books, and was now a
poor man, dependent upon a pension from his king. But he was the pride
of his nation, and beloved in France as well.
Humboldt and Guizot were like brothers, and for forty years corresponded
affectionately with each other. Arago he held "dearest in this life."
His last letter to Arago, "small in size but so full of matter," was
the greatest comfort to the dying astronomer.
During all these busy twenty years he had honors heaped upon him. He was
offered the position of Ambassador to Vienna, but declined. He
accompanied the King of Prussia to England in 1814, and was with him at
the peace of Aix-la-Chapelle and at the Congress of Verona.
Busy as he was, he seemed to find time to befriend everybody, especially
young men. Liebig says in the preface of his work dedicated to Humboldt:
"During my residence in Paris, I gave a course of lectures at the
Academy in the winter of 1823-4, upon an analytic investigation of
Howard's fulminating mercury and silver--my first effort in the field of
"At the close of the sitting of March 22, 1824, while busy packing up my
apparatus, a gentleman came up to me from among a group of academicians,
and entered into conversation. In the most winning manner, he made
inquiry as to the objects of my study, my present occupations, and the
plans I had laid for the future. We separated without my knowing to whom
I was indebted for this kind expression of interest, for my shyness and
inexperience had not allowed me to make the inquiry.
"This conversation laid the foundation of my future career, for I thus
acquired a kind friend and a powerful patron in my scientific
"From that time all doors were thrown open to me, I had access to every
institution and every laboratory: the great interest you took in me
procured the love and intimate friendship of my instructors, Gay-Lussac,
Dulong, and Thenard, to all of whom I became deeply attached. The
confidence which you accorded me was the means of my introduction into a
sphere of labor which during the last sixteen years it has ever been my
ambition worthily to occupy."
When Agassiz was a poor medical student in Paris, Humboldt visited him.
"After a cordial greeting, he walked straight to what was then my
library--a small book-shelf containing a few classics, the meanest
editions, bought for a trifle, along the quays, some works on philosophy
and history, chemistry and physics, his own 'Aspects of Nature,'
'Aristotle's Zooelogy,' 'Linnaeus' Systema Naturae,' in several editions,
'Cuvier's Regne Animal,' and quite a number of manuscript quartos,
copies which, with the assistance of my brother, I had made of works I
was too poor to buy, though they cost but a few francs a volume....
"It was no doubt apparent to him that I was not over-familiar with the
good things of this world, for I shortly afterward received an
invitation to meet him at six o'clock in the Galerie Vitree of the
Palais Royal, whence he led me into one of those restaurants the
tempting windows of which I had occasionally passed by. When we were
seated, he half laughingly, half inquiringly, asked me whether I would
order the dinner. I declined the invitation, saying that we should fare
better if he would take the trouble. And for three hours, which passed
like a dream, I had him all to myself. How he examined me, and how much
I learned in that short time! How to work, what to do, and what to
avoid; how to live; how to distribute my time; what methods of study to
pursue; these were the things of which he talked to me on that
Noble Humboldt! so great that everybody honored and looked up to him; so
kindly interested in others that everybody loved him!
In 1827, at the request of his king, Humboldt returned to Berlin, and
became chamberlain, with a yearly salary of five thousand thalers. He
gave this year, before the university, a course of free, public lectures
upon physical geography, sixty nine in all, which afterwards formed the
basis of his grandest work, "Cosmos." The first four lectures were a
general description of nature; then astronomy, the principal outlines of
geology and meteorology, the distribution of plants and animals, the
history of the study of our globe, volcanoes, the ocean, the atmosphere,
and the human race.
The lectures were crowded and the applause unexampled. A second course,
of sixteen lectures, was given to the public in the music hall, the
royal family coming with the thousands who gathered each evening.
A grand way to educate the people! Would that at the expense of some
philanthropist such a course might be given in every city.
In 1829, at the request of Emperor Nicholas, Humboldt made a scientific
expedition to eastern Russia, travelling over nine thousand miles in
twenty-five weeks. He was now in his sixtieth year, but he climbed high
mountains with no apparent fatigue.
The emperor was delighted with the results of the expedition, which were
published in several volumes. He said, "Your sojourn in Russia has been
the cause of immense progress to my country; you spread a life-giving
influence wherever you go." He presented Humboldt with a sable cloak
worth five thousand rubles, and a malachite vase seven feet high, worth
nearly forty thousand rubles.
The death of friends saddened this busy year, 1829. William's wife had
died, and left him utterly desolate. In his ministry to several
countries, she had honored and graced his diplomatic positions. He did
not long survive her. "Wholly given up to grief," said Alexander, "he
seeks in the depth of his misery the only consolation that can render
life supportable, while he occupies himself with intellectual pursuits
as with the drudgery of a task."
He died four years later, tenderly watched over by his illustrious
brother, to whom he said in dying, "Think of me often, but always with
cheerfulness. I have been very happy, and even to-day has been a
glorious day with me, for there is nothing more beautiful than love. I
shall soon be with the mother, and enter upon a higher order of
This death was a great blow to Alexander. He said, "I am quite bereft of
hope. I did not think that my old eyes could have shed so many tears....
I am the unhappiest of men.... I have lost half of myself." A few months
later William's eldest daughter, Caroline, died, to whom Alexander was
tenderly attached. From henceforth his life was devoted to his sovereign
Frederick William IV., to "Cosmos," and to his ever widening circle of
friends. Two thousand letters or more came to him yearly, and till late
in life he answered each one, and answered it promptly, showing thereby
how truly well bred he was in manner, and how truly kind in heart.
In 1834, when he was sixty-five, he began the publication of "Cosmos,"
in five volumes, the "most comprehensive compendium of modern science."
It was soon translated into English, meeting with a cordial reception in
that country, and into French, Dutch, and Italian.
Even at the age of sixty-five, so eager was he to know more that he
attended courses of lectures on Grecian antiquities and literature, and
upon chemistry, taking notes among the young university students. He now
lived with the king, at Sans-Souci, spending every evening with him, and
becoming the confidential friend of both king and queen. When Humboldt
was ill, the king would read to him by the hour.
Frederick William IV. conferred on him the decoration of the Star of the
Red Eagle, the Order of the Black Eagle, the highest honor in the royal
power to confer, and the Order of Merit, given to those "who throughout
Europe have won for themselves a name either in the arts or sciences."
Till the last years of his life Humboldt showed the same marvellous
energy and industry. At eighty he said, "I am more than ever filled with
a zest for work and literary distinction." When he wrote to friends for
information in finishing "Cosmos," he asked for speedy answers, saying,
"The dead ride fast." On the fortieth anniversary of his return to
Europe, a fete was given in his honor, by the Berlin Academy. Later his
bust was placed in the French Institute. The freedom of the city of
Berlin was presented to him. America sent him in 1858, on his
eighty-ninth birthday, an album of nine maps, showing the scores of
towns, counties, rivers, bays, and mountains which had received his
name. Letters came from all parts of the world, breathing love and
admiration. Yet, with all this honor, he was often lonely, and spoke of
the ennui of life. After the regency, Humboldt lived at Berlin, in an
unostentatious home, with his attendant, Seifert.
On May 6, 1859, at half-past two in the afternoon, death came to
Alexander von Humboldt, at the age of ninety. His mind was clear to the
All ranks gathered at the public funeral, for all, from king to peasant,
had lost a friend. With uncovered head, the Prince Regent received the
procession at the door of the cathedral, amid the tolling of the bells,
and then they buried him at the summer home of his childhood, Tegel, by
the side of William.
A new edition of his select works, including "Cosmos," was published in
Stuttgart, in 1874, in thirty-six volumes.
Great in learning, great in achievement, great in will-power; unwise
sometimes in utterance, as in the Varnhagen letters--how seldom is it
safe or wise to express our inmost thoughts;--sarcastic sometimes in his
language--a dangerous power, to be used sparingly, if indeed ever,--and
yet withal a noble, unselfish, marvellous-minded man, who, as Agassiz
says, "exerted upon science a personal influence which is