Friday, September 29

The Father of Biogeography – Alexander von Humboldt


A statue of Humboldt stands in Unter den Linden, Mitte in Berlin. – Photo by Lessormore/Wikimedia Commons

WHO has heard or learned of this scientist? One might cast one’s mind back to one’s schooldays when the Geography teacher mentioned the Humboldt Current – a cold current flowing from the Southern Ocean northwards along the Chilean and Peruvian coasts or the Biology teacher may have talked about the Humboldt penguin found on the shores of Peru.

Alexander von Humboldt was born in Berlin in 1769 and lived to the ripe old age of 89 and buried in the city of his birthplace following a Prussian state funeral. He was born into a wealthy military family with state connections and educated at home by two prominent tutors, Hertz, a physician and Willenow who later became one of the world’s greatest botanists. As a boy, he was forever collecting and labelling insects, plants, and shells which stood him in good stead for later life. At university – he attended five – his studies ranged from mineralogy, finance, and anatomy.


It was on a visit to Mainz in 1789 when the 20-year-old Humboldt chanced to meet and befriend Georg Forster, a naturalist, who had accompanied Captain James Cook on his second expedition. It was on a journey to England with Forster later that year that they met up with Sir Joseph Banks, the then President of the Royal Society. Banks had also been on Cook’s expeditions. Their worldly accounts of expedition work no doubt fuelled Humboldt’s desire to explore but financing such thoughts was another matter!

With a Diploma from the Freiberg School of Mines in 1792, he was appointed to the Department of Mines as an inspector. There he excelled not only in increasing gold production but also in his genuine concern for miners’ welfare. He opened a school for the miners and paid for it out of his own pocket as well as establishing an emergency relief fund for accident prone miners. It was near these mines that he spent his free time studying the local vegetation and published his first biological work. This caught the eye of Goethe with whom he established a friendship. His fascination with botany led him to Italy and Switzerland.

Overseas expeditions 

His inner desire to explore the world prompted him in 1799 to request authorisation from King Charles IV of Spain to form an expedition, at his own expense, to visit Spanish held territories in Central and South America for the next five years. He visited Venezuela, Cuba, Colombia, Peru, and Ecuador and was accompanied by Aime Bonpland, a renowned botanist and the expedition’s doctor.

In Venezuela he explored the Orinoco River almost to its source in Portuguese held Brazil. There, in a valley, he noticed how the forest was being cleared for the development of cocoa plantations supplying the world’s chocolate trade and he hit upon the idea of human-induced climate change.

There was a rapid fall in the water level in the valley’s Lake Valencia which Humboldt attributed to deforestation and the inability of exposed soils to retain water. With the trees removed the soils were deprived of shade and exposed to increased radiation and thus evaporation. His diary notes recorded, “man’s mischief” in disturbing “nature’s order”. He certainly possessed an eagle eye for environmental details. It was along this river that he documented the lifestyles of several native tribes and discovered electric eels.

Treks in Cuba

Whilst there he studied the agricultural output of sugar cane and carried out mineralogical surveys. An avid plant collector and no mean artist, his beautiful illustrations of species alerted the western world as to what lay beyond.

Andean expeditions (1801 to 1803)

Sailing to northern South America led to his arrival in Colombia and he soon moved to Bogota followed by a long trek across the snow-covered ranges of the Andes mountains to Quito in Ecuador. In 1802, he climbed more than 5,878 metres up the side of Mount Chimborazo in Ecuador, setting a mountaineering record for a western climber. He knew the exact height for he had devised a type of altimeter – such was his ingenuity, and he was at 300 metres below the summit of this volcano. It was during this expedition that he gained an insight into the interconnections of the living and the physical world.

Based on sketches he made, he drew an annotated side view of the mountain’s climatic and ecological altitudinal zones noting the heights where agriculture ceased, and the permanent snowline began. From this particular expedition, he has been accredited with the title as ‘Father of Biogeography’.

Photo shows Mount Chimborazo in Ecuador, which Humboldt climbed in 1802. – Photo by Dick Culbert/Wikimedia Commons

In 2012, a research team retraced Humboldt’s steps up the mountain and produced a similar diagram of zones and the present-day ecological zones and the changes as shown in the accompanying juxtaposed diagram. Clearly, dramatic ecological shifts affected by climate change together with improved farming methods can be seen and particularly in the revised height of the snowline.

Later, in Peru, he studied the rich nitrogen properties of guano (accumulated bat and bird droppings) and the publication of his findings prompted an export trade in these fertilisers to Europe, which continues to this very day. It was on his one-year visit to Mexico from 1803 that he produced a vast number of altimetric readings and other recorded data which he described as “the basis of all scientific understandings”. His obsession with quantification became known as ‘Humboldtian science’!

Later achievements

It was in 1817 that he developed the idea of isothermal (equal temperature) lines drawn on maps thus comparing the climates of different countries and much later to be used by German climatologists in producing world climatic zone maps. He investigated the rate of temperature decrease with an increase in altitude thereby explaining convectional tropical storms. He noted that volcanoes fell naturally into linear chains related to their vast cavernous magma chambers underground.

It was in early 1857, living in Berlin, that he suffered a stroke but hung on until May 1859. His dying words were, “How glorious these sunbeams are! They seem to call Earth to the Heavens!”

He had many honours bestowed on him by distinguished scientific societies worldwide in his lifetime, but he was more chuffed by the way, as a scientific traveller, he had inspired others to follow in his wake. Amongst these was Charles Darwin, who admitted that his voyage in HMS Beagle was inspired by Humboldt’s travels and writings. He declared, “Humboldt was the greatest travelling scientist … I worship him.”

Interestingly, Alfred Russel Wallace made no mention of Humboldt in his writings other than in a meeting with a friend who had visited Humboldt Bay in Papua New Guinea. Undoubtedly, Humboldt, had he been alive, would have acknowledged Wallace’s findings in ‘The Malay Archipelago’ first published 10 years after Humboldt’s death.

The importance of Humboldt today may be measured in terms of 14 geographical features, 19 species of birds, plants, insects, animals, and fish and over 16 places bearing the name Humboldt, and especially the Alejandro de Humboldt National Park in Cuba. His influence on the ecological, biogeographical, climatological, and cartographical areas of scientific research still lingers on 164 years after his death. He was, indeed, a most extraordinary traveller.