Friedrich Wilhelm Heinrich Alexander von Humboldt (14 September 1769 – 6 May 1859) was a Prussian geographer, naturalist, explorer, and influential proponent of Romantic philosophy and science. He was the younger brother of the Prussian minister, philosopher, and linguist Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767–1835). Humboldt’s quantitative work on botanical geography laid the foundation for the field of biogeography. Humboldt’s advocacy of long-term systematic geophysical measurement laid the foundation for modern geomagnetic and meteorological monitoring.
Between 1799 and 1804, Humboldt traveled extensively in Latin America, exploring and describing it for the first time from a modern scientific point of view. His description of the journey was written up and published in an enormous set of volumes over 21 years. Humboldt was one of the first people to propose that the lands bordering the Atlantic Ocean were once joined (South America and Africa in particular). Humboldt resurrected the use of the word cosmos from the ancient Greek and assigned it to his multi-volume treatise, Kosmos, in which he sought to unify diverse branches of scientific knowledge and culture. This important work also motivated a holistic perception of the universe as one interacting entity. He was the first person to describe the phenomenon and cause of human-induced climate change, in 1800 and again in 1831, based on observations generated during his travels.
Alexander von Humboldt spent his early life disappointing his parents. He was outdoorsy and adventurous. The young Humboldt spent so much time collecting plants and insects that his parents teasingly dubbed him “the little apothecary”. Humboldt was more blunt about it, dubbing the family home The Castle of Boredom. When he was older, Humboldt traveled Europe with Joseph Banks, a naturalist who had sailed with Captain Cook. When his father died, the Humboldt’s widowed mother insisted he become a mine inspector. Humboldt agreed, studied geology and managed mines for the Prussian government for five years, during which time he invented safer lamps for miners, opened a mining school, started an emergency fund for injured miners and cataloged species of subterranean plants. When his mother, Maria Elisabeth von Humboldt, died in 1796 Alexander was freed of family control and left with an impressive fortune. He could have lived comfortably for the rest of his life but he decided to spend most of it on science.
His worked earned him international fame in his own lifetime. Humboldt was admitted to the American Philosophical Society, The Prussian Academy of Sciences, The New York Historical Society, The American Ethnological Society, The American Academy of Arts and Sciences, The Royal Swedish Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the Royal Society. He talked extensively with Jefferson on his return trip, sharing troves of data that might have influenced Jefferson to pursue the Louisiana Purchase. Humboldt’s fame, scientific acumen and his support of indigenous inhabitants of New Spain and disgust with slavery led early German-Americans to adopt him as an icon, naming towns and cities after him. German-American Quakers had founded the abolitionists, after all. He inspired Henry David Thoreau, Robert Frost, John Muir, George Perkins Marsh and Charles Darwin. Humboldt and Darwin corresponded as the young Darwin published his first works. Humboldt met and befriended Simon Bolivar when the two were in Paris. The two climbed Mount Vesuvius together. Bolivar called him the “true discoverer of South America”. Muir, 70 years after his death, wished he “could be a young Humboldt”.
Humboldt, in many ways, was a man before his time. and of his time. He developed such a thoroughly-modern understanding of the way that living things interact with each other and the environment that we forgot that it had to be developed in the first place. He was a strict empirical, scientist at a time when it was appropriate to cite God when discussing nature. He disagreed and railed against American and Spanish slavery and treatment of native peoples at a time when racial caste systems were “scientific”. Humboldt, from beyond the grave, from two centuries ago is relevant. This month, for Pride Month, I urge you to rediscover Humboldt and connect with one of the foundations of the environmental movement.