Humboldt | Friedrich Wilhelm Heinrich Alexander | von | 1769-1859 | Baron | German naturalist, geologist and explorer

Biographical Information

Occupation, Sphere of Activity

Friedrich Wilhelm Heinrich Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) was a naturalist, geologist and explorer. His father, a senior member of the Prussian military, wanted him to enter politics, but Humboldt preferred to study engineering. He did, however, live in political circles, and was a campaigner against racism and anti-semitism, and a recipient of the Prussian 'pour le mérite' order. Humboldt studied at Göttingen and Frankfurt-an-der-Oder universities during 1787-1792. He also spent time at the academy of commerce in Hamburg and the academy of mining in Freiburg, Saxony. Two results of his involvement in mines were his interest in geology and his invention of a number of mining safety devices, including a safety lamp.

Humboldt attended the conference in Paris that verified the measurements of the meridian arc that were used to define the metric system.

In 1799, despite the Napoleonic wars, which made travel difficult, Humboldt travelled to South America with botanist Aimé Bonpland, where he spent five years studying various natural phenomena including the correlation between volcanoes and fault lines, the Casiquiare river linking the Amazon to the Orinoco, variations in the Earths magnetic field near the equator, ocean currents (one of which is named in his honour) and the local flora and fauna. He returned via the United States, visiting president Thomas Jefferson (a keen amateur scientist) and being elected a member of the American Philosophical Society. He also set a new altitude record while climbing there, collected 60,000 plant specimens (6,300 unknown in Europe) during his voyage, and introduced the remarkable fertilising effects of Peruvian guano to Europe on his return.

Once back in Europe, Humboldt conducted experiments on the constitution of the atmosphere with Gay-Lusson in Paris before eventually returning to Prussia, where he was appointed a diplomat. He spent much of his time as a diplomat in Paris, a sort of adopted second home for him since he had seen the early revolutionary days there in 1791. In 1829, Humboldt set off on another great voyage of exploration, this time to Siberia and Russian Asia, at the behest of Nicholas I, the czar of Russia.

His magnum opus, 'Kosmos', is remarkable, because it was the first reasonably accurate encyclopaedia of geology and geography published. Amongst some of his other publications Humboldt also wrote 34 volumes of his travel journals and a history of mediaeval geography.


His brother, Wilhelm, was a philologist and founder of Berlin University.

Other Significant Information

Notable Publications:

Kosmos, (c1859)

Ansichten der Natur(1849)

Kleinere Schriften(1853)

Honours, Qualifications and Appointments

1804: Elected to American Philosophical Society

1805: Awarded Honorary Doctorate by the University of Frankfurt-an-der-Oder

1807: Elected Member, Société d'Arcueil

1827: Awarded Honorary Doctorate by the University of Dorpat

1828: Awarded Honorary Doctorate by the University of Bonn

1842: Awarded Order "pour le mérite," Chancellor of the Peace Division

1845: Awarded Honorary Doctorate by the University of Tübingen

1848: Awarded Honorary Doctorate by the University of Prague

1850: Awarded Copley Medal

1853: Awarded Honorary Doctorate by the University of St. Andrews


List of sources for the biographical information:

Gillispie, Charles C, Dictionary of scientific biography, Vol VI, (New York , Scribner's, 1972)

Asimov, Isaac, Asimov's Biographical Encyclopaedia of Science and Technology, (New York , Doubleday, 1964)

Millar, David, Millar, Ian, Millar, John, Millar, Margaret, Chambers Concise Dictionary of Scientists, (Cambridge /Edinburgh, Chambers Cambridge, 1989)