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

of friends.

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

in America.

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

thousand feet.

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

constant inspiration.

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.

Agassiz says:--

"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

delightful evening."

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


Alaric the Visigoth Alfred the Great facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail