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About Alexander von Humboldt

Friedrich Wilhelm Heinrich Alexander von Humboldt’s legacy rings through the worlds of botany, exploration, astrology, and politics. There are numerous species of animals and flowers, glaciers, rivers, mountains, cities, and universities named after him, and even beyond our home planet, we have a Mare Humboldtianum on the moon and then beyond that, an asteroid named Alexandra in his honor, located in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.


Born in Berlin on September 14, 1769 to Alexander Georg und Maria Elisabeth von Humboldt, he spent his early years at Schloss Tegel. Both Alexander and his older brother Wilhelm (1767-1835) were initially educated by tutors.

Coming of age with countless scientific advancements and during the Age of Enlightenment, Humboldt became familiar with the concepts of science, but it wasn’t until he met the explorer Georg Forster (1754-1794) that his interest in discovery and exploration really was sparked. In 1790, Forster and Humboldt travelled to England. Upon his return, Humboldt continued his more formal education, at first following the wishes of his mother who wanted him to pursue a career in the Prussian bureaucracy. In 1791, he enrolled in the prestigious mining academy at Freiberg. In 1793, at the age of twenty-five, Humboldt published his research into the subterranean vegetation he had encountered in the mines of Freiberg.


Humboldt stayed a Prussian supervisor of mines until 1796, although he continued to travel, for example to the Rhineland, Bavaria, Bohemia, and Austria, sometimes participating in diplomatic missions.  After the death of his mother, he was free to leave the Prussian Civil Service, in part because he inherited a sizable fortune from her. On a trip to Paris, Humboldt met the French botanist Aimé Bonpland, and they traveled together to Spain as part of a plan to explore Egypt. This project never came to pass, but instead they were offered the opportunity to explore the possessions of the Spanish Crown in South and Central America—what was called “New Spain” or “Spanish America”. Aboard the ship Pizarro, Humboldt and Bonpland sailed from La Coruna in 1799, and  not long after beginning their voyage, they observed a meteor shower. This shower was one of the first recorded events from this region, starting their trip with one of the history-making tales of their travels.

Accompanied by Bonpland and other researchers, Humboldt spent five years in Central and South America, covering over 6,000 miles – mostly along the Cordilleras range, from Colombia to Peru, and along the Orinoco. It was from this trip that Humboldt drew the inspiration for most of his later publications. And from there, as the last stop on his journey, Humboldt visited the United States, befriending President Thomas Jefferson and meeting many of those who had guided the United States to independence just a few years earlier. Humboldt’s impact on the United States reached from the scientific to the political when he voiced his opinions on controversial topics like slavery.


In this exhibit, you will find images and texts from Alexander von Humboldt’s voyage through the Americas as well as his time spent in Philadelphia, and the ways that his life and work was recognized in the years after he departed the Americas. He spent five years mapping out the geography, the people, and the nature—things that he had so engrossed himself in learning about since he was a youth. These travels and the works produced both by him and by those inspired by him serve as reminders of the passion that went into this project.

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