After a long life, in part spent publishing the materials he had collected during his American voyage, but also with many other scientific endeavors, Humboldt died on May 6th, 1859 in Berlin at age 89. In the years that followed, his legacy continued through his work and the ways that people honored the contributions he made to his fields. His name lives on in the Humboldt penguin, Humboldt squid, and Humboldt lily, as well as the Humboldt Current – in fact, he still holds the record as to the most places, plants, and animals named after a single individual. In the United States, there’s a Humboldt River and a Humboldt Peak, as well as parks and cities and counties named after him — even almost a state: what we now know as Nevada could have been Humboldt!
Astronomical features, mountain ranges. His legacy exists in his work, his writings, and the relationships he built with those around him. In this section we focus on the 1869 centennial celebration of his birth in Philadelphia, the city he had visited in 1804, and the central role the German Society of Pennsylvania played in memorializing Humboldt.
Several factors are worth mentioning – these were the years after the end of the Civil War, and the German Americans had been fairly consistent in their opposition to slavery, ever since Francis Daniel Pastorius was among the authors of the first abolitionist petition back in 1688. So they looked for opportunities to showcase this aspect of their history in the United States, and who was better suited for that purpose than Humboldt? The man who had condemned slavery after he had seen it deleterious effects in the Spanish American colonies, and who had protested vehemently when his conclusions on slavery were omitted from an American edition of his essay on Cuba in 1856.
And William Horstmann, the German Society president and wealthy textile manufacturer who came up with the idea for the statue, himself embodied what had been so special about Humboldt’s influence—it had not been limited to a scientific or academic audience—he had wanted to reach as wide an audience as possible, and his Kosmos lectures in Berlin are the most famous expression of that goal. In addition, many of his works had been re-issued in editions aimed at a less educated reader—men like Horstmann, who never enjoyed much of a formal education, but who was curious about the world around him and traveled a lot.
In addition, these are the years leading up to the founding of the German Empire —a development closely watched by a German American community interested in being connected to a powerful united Germany. Just like the German Society was thinking big at the time—it had many prosperous merchants, factory owners, publishers, doctors and professors as its members, and completely rebuilds its headquarters in 1866. In 1867, Oswald Seidensticker, professor of German at the University of Pennsylvania, establishes the German American Archive – a reflection of the increased desire to document the ‘German’ contribution to the success of the United States. And now the upcoming Humboldt anniversary provides the opportunity to reach even further than with the Schiller anniversary of 1859—to the whole scientific and academic community in Philadelphia—from the American Philosophical Society to the Franklin Institute, from the Academy of Natural Sciences to the College of Physicians, from the Wagner Free Institute of Science to Girard College.