Alexander von Humboldt

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Humboldt, Alexander von


Born Sept. 14, 1769, in Berlin; died there May 6, 1859. German naturalist, geographer, and traveler. Member of the Berlin Academy of Sciences (1800) and honorary member of the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences (1818). Born into the family of a courtier of the elector of Saxony; brother of W. von Humboldt.

Between 1787 and 1792, A. von Humboldt studied natural history, economics, law, and mining at the universities of Frankfurt-an-der-Oder and Göttingen, at a commercial academy in Hamburg, and at the Mining Academy of Freiberg. In 1790, together with G. Forster, who strongly influenced him, he traveled through France, the Netherlands, and England. His first scientific work (1790) dealt with basalts and took the then prevailing viewpoint of neptunism. From 1792 to 1795, Humboldt served in Prussia’s department of mines. In 1793 he published the botanical and physiological study Florae Friburgensis Specimen (The Subterranean Flora of Freiberg), which summarized his observations of cryp-togamic plants. His experiments on the irritability of nerve and muscle fibers were described in a monograph written in 1797.

From 1799 to 1804, Humboldt, together with the French botanist A. Bonpland, journeyed through Central and South America. Returning to Europe with an extensive collection of specimens, he worked on this collection in Paris with other well-known scientists for more than 20 years. Humboldt’s 30-volume work Voyages aux régions équinoxiales du nouveau continent, fait en 1799–1804 (Travels in Equatorial Regions of the New World From 1799 to 1804) was published between 1807 and 1834 (Russian translation of vols. 1–3 published from 1963 to 1969). A large part of this work is devoted to the description of plants (16 volumes) and to astronomical, geodetic, and cartographic data (5 volumes). It also contains data on zoology, comparative anatomy, and other fields, as well as a description of his journeys. The material gained in Humboldt’s expedition was also used in a number of other works, among them Views of Nature With Scientific Commentaries published in 1808 (Russian translations, 1855 and 1959).

In 1827, Humboldt moved from Paris to Berlin, where he served as a chamberlain and adviser to the king of Prussia. In 1829 he traveled in Russia through the Urals and Altai and to the Caspian Sea. The nature of Asia is covered in the works Fragments on Geology and Climatology of Asia (vols. 1–2, 1831) and Central Asia (vols. 1–3, 1843; Russian translation, vol. 1, 1915). Later Humboldt attempted a survey of all the scientific knowledge about the earth and universe in the monumental work The Cosmos (vols. 1–5, 1845–62; Russian translation, vols. 1–5, 1848–63; vol. 5 was not completed). This work is an outstanding example of progressive, materialist natural philosophy of the first half of the 19th century. Humboldt’s works greatly influenced the development of natural science (C. Darwin, C. Lyell, N. A. Severtsov, K. F. Rul’e, V. V. Dokuchaev, V. I. Vernadskii, and other scientists).

The methodological principles developed by Humboldt of the materiality and unity of nature as well as the methodological principles of the interconnections between phenomena and processes and their interdependence and evolution were highly acclaimed by F. Engels (see Dialektika prirody, 1969, p. 166). Engels included Humboldt among those scientists whose work aided the development of the materialist trend in natural science and represented a break with metaphysical thought.

Proceeding from general principles and using the comparative method, Humboldt created a physical geography, which elucidates the laws prevailing on the earth’s surface and in its lithosphere, hydrosphere, and atmosphere. His views formed the basis for general geography (general physical geography) and the study of landscapes as well as for plant geography and climatology. Humboldt substantiated the regular zonal distribution of plants on the earth’s surface (latitudinal and vertical zonality) and developed the ecological trend in plant geography. In connection with the latter he devoted much attention to the study of climate and for the first time widely used average statistical indexes to characterize it. He also worked out the method of isotherms and compiled a schematic map of their distribution in the northern hemisphere. Humboldt also supplied a detailed description of the continental and maritime climates. In addition, he indicated the factors responsible for their differences as well as the processes of their formation.

Humboldt’s range of scientific interests was so great that his contemporaries called him the “Aristotle of the 19th century.” He was friends with and shared scientific and scholarly interests with J. W. von Goethe, J. C. F. von Schiller, P. S. de Laplace, D. F. Arago, K. Gauss, and C. L. von Buch and in Russia, with A. Ia. Kupfer, F. P. Litke, N. I. Lobachevskii, D. M. Perevoshchikov, I. M. Simonov, and V. Ia. Struve.

Humboldt was an advocate of humanism and reason. He was opposed to inequality among races and peoples and predatory wars. A number of geographical features have been named after Humboldt, among them mountain ranges in Central Asia (the Ulan-Daban Range) and North America, a mountain on the island of New Caledonia, a glacier in northwest Greenland, a river, and several towns and villages in the USA. A number of plants have also been named in his honor as well as a mineral and a crater on the moon. A university in Berlin (the German Democratic Republic) is named after the brothers Alexander and Wilhelm von Humboldt.


Versuche über die gereizten Muskel- und Nervenfasern, nebst Vermuthungen über den chemischen Process des Lebens in der Tierund Pflanzenwelt, vols. 1–2, Berlin, 1797.


Anuchin, D. N. “Aleksandr fon Gumbol’dt kak puteshestvennik i geograf i v osobennosti kak issledovatel’ Asii.” In the book by A. von Humboldt Tsentral’naia Aziia. Moscow, 1915.
Vul’f, E. V. “Znacheniie rabot A. Gumbol’dta dlia geografii ra-stenii.” In the book by A. von Humboldt Geografiia rastenii. Moscow-Leningrad, 1936.
Safonov, V. A. A. Gumbol’dt. Moscow, 1959.
Esakov, V. A. A. Gumbol’dt v Rossii. Moscow. 1960. (Bibliography.)
Terra, H. de. A. Gumbol’dt i ego vremia. Moscow, 1961. (Translated from German.)
Perepiska A. Gumbol’dta s uchenymi i gosundarstvennymi deialeliami Rossii. Moscow, 1962.
Bruhns, K. Alexander von Humboldt: Eine wissentschaftliche Biographie, vols. 1–3. Leipzig, 1872. (Bibliography.)
Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859): Gedenkschrift zur 100. Wiederkehr seines Todestages. Berlin, 1959.
Alexander von Humboldt: Wirkendes Vorbild für Fortschrift und Befreiung der Menschheit. Festschrift aus Anlass seines 200. Geburtstages. Berlin, 1969.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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