Monday, May 23, 2016
RESUSCITATING THE BARON OF BOTANY
Two hundred years ago, he was the world’s most famous man, second perhaps only to Napoleon, although according to his contemporaries, that opinion was debatable. For a long time he was considered by many the smartest person who ever lived. Rivers, mountains, deserts, counties, wide varieties of animals and more are all named after him. Today, however, he is largely forgotten, and when many people hear his name, the first thing they think of is pot.
Friedrich Wilhelm Heinrich Alexander von Humboldt—the Shakespeare of Science—the Alexander of Science—more than any other individual shaped our concept of nature. Charles Darwin said he would not have boarded the Beagle, and thus would never have written Origin of Species, were it not for Alexander von Humboldt. Goethe, Jefferson, Emerson, Thoreau, Muir, and more names than can be feasibly listed all cite Humboldt as a major influence. Genius, visionary, Renaissance man, Humboldt is the father of environmentalism. Because of his work, we see nature as an interconnected web of life.
To search him on the web, one finds a dearth of material. There is no great Alexander von Humboldt movie, and yet we can still find his presence. Last year, Andrea Wulf published The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World, and one can find her presentation and panel discussion at Washington College online. Humboldt’s most famous work, Kosmos, is naturally available through YouTube on audio book. And a serviceable BBC documentary, “Alexander von Humboldt – Natural Traveler,” also merits interest.
Born to wealthy Prussian parents in Berlin in 1769 (the same year as Napoleon), he died in Berlin at the age of 89, with his memory perfectly intact and vigor unabated. His parents called him “the little apothecary” because he liked to collect herbs. That’s right, Humboldt County. And when he started traveling around the world at age 29, even his name grew like a weed.
Botanist, geographer, explorer, and Germanic Virgo, Humboldt’s restless mind was obsessed with meticulously measuring every aspect of observable nature. From his observations he extrapolated general principles. In one of his finer moments, fascinated by the work of Luigi Galvani, Humboldt cut open his back and stuck wires into his wounds in order to study the effects. This was only one of many shocking experiments. He also captured and dissected electric eels.
Strong anti-German sentiment beginning during WWI probably has something to do with Baron von Humboldt being largely forgotten in the English-speaking world. But because he was a generalist in a world of increasing specialization, he was also overshadowed by the people that he most influenced soon after his death.
Be proud, Humboldters.
To learn more about our county’s once well-known namesake, freely observe the online world.
Stewart Kirby writes for