C. (Carl) Bruhns.

Life of Alexander von Humboldt : compiled in commemoration of the centenary of his birth (Volume 1) online

. (page 1 of 39)
Online LibraryC. (Carl) BruhnsLife of Alexander von Humboldt : compiled in commemoration of the centenary of his birth (Volume 1) → online text (page 1 of 39)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

























All rights reserved.


THE NEED experienced in Germany of an adequate biography of
Alexander von Humboldt has perhaps been felt with scarcely
less urgency in this country: and there is therefore every
reason to hope that this attempt to place before the world in a
true light the life and labours of the Author of c Cosmos,' will
meet in England with a welcome no less cordial than that which
has been granted to the work in its original form.

In preparing this biography for English readers, it has been
deemed advisable to omit the third volume, devoted to a
critical investigation of Humboldt's scientific labours, since
these are given with sufficient minuteness for the general
reader in the biographical portion ; nor has it been thought
desirable to include the last section of the second volume,
consisting of an elaborate catalogue of his voluminous works.
With these exceptions, the omissions consist only of official
documents and some passages of purely local interest.

In rendering quotations from ' Faust,' the translators have
followed the metrical version of Mr. Bayard Taylor. The
thermometric readings are given according to Fahrenheit's
scale. The notes within brackets have been added by the



WHEN, on May 6, 1859, Alexander von Humboldt closed his
eyes in death, in the ninetieth year of his age, the numerous
eulogies, biographical notices, and sketches of character that
appeared in periodicals of every description, both in his own
country and in foreign lands, afforded striking evidence of the
universal recognition of his genius, and of the unanimous
acknowledgment of the influence he had exerted on the
advancement of science during the present century.

Many attempts have already been made to record the life of
this illustrious man, and trace the process of development of
his master mind. A skeleton biography was furnished by
Humboldt, in the year 1850, at the request of the editor, for
Brockhaus' 6 Conversations-Lexikon.' An abridgment of this
biography appeared in the tenth edition of that work, while
the original article was published entire in the eighth volume
of the periodical entitled c Die Gregenwart ' (1853). A bio-
graphical memoir, compiled, however, with no direct references
to authorities, nor even with much acquaintance with scientific
subjects, was brought out by H. Klencke in 1851, and in 1859
W. F. A. Zimmermann published his '< Humboldtbuch.' In
addition, fragmentary portions of his biography have appeared
in various forms. But nowhere has the indefatigable Student
of Nature been depicted in the daily routine of his investiga-


tions, nowhere has the man of science been represented as he
lived and laboured ; for even the biography published in 1860
by W. C. Wittwer : c Alexander von Humboldt. His Life and
Labours as a Man of Science,' furnishes in reality little more
than that which had already appeared elsewhere.

The fact is that the compilation of a biography of Humboldt
which should in every sense be worthy of the subject and em-
brace the whole range of his scientific labours, was an under-
taking of no small difficulty. Even the men who were most
closely associated with him are compelled to confess that they
are not in a position to do justice to the activity of his
universal genius. The necessary sources of information for
the accomplishment of such a purpose were unattainable, were
even hermetically sealed. Humboldt himself was ' painfully
shy of communicating anything relating to family affairs ; ' and,
though admitting their necessity for the history of science, he
detested all biographies, especially eulogies. Thus, in writing
to Dr. Spiecker, he remarks : c I have so often refused to take
part in any biographical notice of either myself or my brother,
whether by furnishing materials or by revising the compilations
of others, that I feel compelled to preserve the same line of
conduct in Germany that I have hitherto maintained both in
France and England. My horror of biographies is almost as
great as that which I feel for the portraits of old men painted
by the sun, although both may be viewed in the history of
science as a disagreeable necessity. Life is daily losing for me its
charm, and I need your kindest indulgence, my worthy friend,
for this idiosyncracy of an old man. I have even inserted a
clause in my will forbidding that any eloge should be pro-
nounced over me at the Institute.' His will, bearing date
May 10, 1841, is preserved in the royal palace at Potsdam,
and the clause above referred to runs as follows : c I request
that my dear relatives and friends will endeavour to prevent
the appearance of any biographical notice of me or laudatory
article in either the " Staatszeitung " or other public journal
over which they can exercise any control. I have also drawn


up a letter for transmission to the Institute at Paris requesting
that the eloge usually delivered upon the death of a foreign
associate may be omitted in my case.' As in consequence of
these prohibitions his nearest relatives and friends published
immediately after his death a 6 protest against the publication
of any confidential letters,' it was simply impossible to attempt
the compilation of a life of Humboldt that should be based
upon the investigation of authentic sources. For the inner
life of a man is to be seen only in those confidential communi-
cations which are hastily committed to paper, and are addressed
only to his most intimate friends. A biography compiled
without the aid of correspondence or other manuscript records
could no more give a life-like representation of Humboldt
than a cold marble bust can approach the glow of living

Meanwhile this prohibition could not be long maintained.
Notwithstanding its frequent sad infringement, it is impossible
with any justice to deny the right of posterity to the letters
of men whose public career is connected inseparably with the
history of their country.

The first series of Humboldt's letters, published scarcely a
year after his death, failed to represent him in a favourable
aspect, inasmuch as they revealed some of those weaknesses of
character from which even great men are not always exempt.
By these letters, and still more by the censorious remarks
contained in the annotations by Varnhagen, whose undoubted
genius was unfortunately marred by a spirit embittered by
disappointment, many secrets were brought to light which
were quite unsuitable for general publication, or even for being
privately circulated amongst his personal friends, although it
cannot be denied that the ' Letters from Alexander von Hum-
boldt to Varnhagen von Ense ' have made us acquainted with
many facts and exhibited various traits of character, without
which the portrait of Humboldt would seem now to be incom-
plete. The letters had been penned by Humboldt for the
gratification of a friend who delighted in gossip, and they


should in any case, after perusal by him, have been committed
to the flames. In comparison with this rich and piquant col-
lection, the small work which came out the same year (1860)
entitled ' Letters from Alexander von Humboldt to a Young-
Friend, with Notes of Conversations between the Years 1848
and 1856,' appeared insignificant, and excited but little atten-
tion. Many years passed before the scientific aspect of Hum-
boldt's life was again brought into prominence, through the
publication of other letters those, for instance, which were
edited by H. Berghaus and De la Koquette. Meanwhile, the
history of the years 1864 and 1866 drew the attention of
Grermany to that political stage where Prussia, the once in-
significant country of Humboldt, was now to take the lead,
and it was only on the approach of the centenary of his birth
that the interest once felt towards him was reawakened.

At the meeting of the scientific association at Dresden on
September 18, 1868, it devolved upon me to make a few in-
troductory remarks upon the progress of science, especially
with reference to astronomy, in the course of which I made
some allusion to the approaching centenary of Humboldt's
birth. I availed myself of the opportunity to point out the
need of an adequate biography of our distinguished country-
man, the want of which was the more to be regretted as the
number of those who enjoyed ptftsonal intercourse with him
and retained the most vivid recollection of his peculiar charac-
teristics was every year diminishing.

Since that period several fresh sources of information have
been thrown open to the compiler of such a work. In the
course of the year 1868 a valuable collection of letters from
Humboldt to Marie Auguste Pictet made their appearance in
the geographical organ ' Le Globe,' constituting the seventh
volume of that periodical, which were followed in the succeed-
ing year, 1869, by the publication of the ' Correspondence
between Alexander von Humboldt and Count Greorge von
Cancrin,' and of the exceedingly interesting ' Letters of Hum-


boldt to Christian Carl Josias Baron von Bunsen.' Various
eloges and speeches commemorative of the centenary of
Humboldt's birth were published by different academies, geo-
graphical societies, and other associations, not only in Europe,
but also in America, among which we can refer only by name
to those of Agassiz, Bastian, Dove, and Ehrenberg ; nor did
there fail to appear on the occasion of the celebration many
other smaller essays and popular biographies.

During the previous year I had already received a communi-
cation from the firm of F. A. Brockhaus of Leipzig, offering to
undertake the publication of the work in the event of my
preparing a life of Humboldt. This intelligence helped to
mature my scheme, and I resolved to attempt to enlist the
co-operation of a number of scientific men in the work of
composing a comprehensive biography of Humboldt, in which
justice should be done to his labours in the various branches of
science. The centenary of his birth appeared to me to offer a
most appropriate opportunity for the commencement of such a
literary memorial the more so, as at that time there had been
no proposition to erect in his native city a monument in

My scheme met with ready sympathy from my friends in
Berlin. Professor W. Forster placed in my hands the manu-
scripts deposited at HumbcSlt's death in the Berlin Observa-
tory, and promised to afford me all the assistance in his power ;
Frau von Biilow, a niece of Humboldt, granted me the use of
the Journals kept by him during his travels in America and
Asia, and allowed me to have access to all the letters in her
possession ; while Professors Dove and Du Bois-Reymond ex-
pressed their willingness to join in the undertaking.

The work is divided into two Parts. The first consists of the
story of his life, the second, of a discussion in detail of his
labours in the various departments of science. The first part
is subdivided into three sections, treating of his Youth, his
Manhood, and his Old Age ; while the second part, consisting


of eight distinct treatises, is devoted to the consideration of
each department of science into which his investigations ex-
tended. Various portraits, published for the first time in this
work, afford interesting records of the personal appearance of
Humboldt during the three principal stages of his career.

The prospectus of the work was issued on the centenary
anniversary of Humboldt's birth. I was able to present it in
person before the Congress of Astronomers at Vienna, convened
on that day in honour of Humboldt, upon which occasion I
was entrusted with the pleasing duty of presenting a summary
of his valuable services in the department of astronomy.

Upon my return from Vienna I proceeded without delay to
the execution of my scheme. The task of narrating the events
of Humboldt's youth and of the years he spent in travel was
undertaken by Herr Julius Lowenberg, who had been occupied
with the subject for many years, and was in possession of nume-
rous documents, letters, and other material indispensable for a
biography. The history of Humboldt's sojourn in Paris, where
he spent many years in scientific labour and in intercourse
with the distinguished men there assembled, was confided to
Dr. K. Ave-Lallemant, who has himself spent many years amid
the scientific circles of the French capital. Finally, in Dr.
Alfred Dove I secured the assistance of one who, from his in-
timate acquaintance with the safety of Berlin, is peculiarly
fitted to depict in an authentic manner, free from every trace
of traditionary false colouring, the closing period of Humboldt's
life, dating from the time of his settlement at Berlin. I was
thus able satisfactorily to complete the arrangements for the
compilation of the purely biographical portion of the work.
With regard to the scientific part of my undertaking, I have
been fortunate enough to obtain the co-operation of Professors
H. W. Dove and J. W. Ewald of Berlin, of Professor A. H. E.
Grisebach of Gottingen, and of Professors J. W. Carus, 0.
Peschel, and Gr. H. Wiedemann of Leipzig. Professor du Bois-
Keymond, to whom had been entrusted the analysis of Hum-
boldt's achievements in the province of physiology, has, to


my great regret, been compelled to withdraw his valued co-
operation from the work; but I have been fortunately able
to secure in his stead the help of Professor W. "Wundt of

Her Majesty the Empress- Queen Augusta has in the most
gracious manner placed at the disposal of the Editor many of
Humboldt's unpublished letters ; unfortunately, a valuable
collection of letters perished in the flames during the year
1848. Besides the Journals, Frau von Billow placed in my
hands twenty-two valuable letters from Humboldt, nineteen of
which were written to his brother during the expedition to
Russia, and three are addressed to his sister-in-law.

A series of more than 80 letters, addressed by Humboldt
to the friend of his youth, Freiesleben, subsequently Director
of Mines at Freiberg, embracing a period from the time of
Humboldt's departure from Freiberg to the year 1845, have
been placed in my hands by his son, Herr Freiesleben, of
Dresden. From Professor Borchardt of Berlin I have received
13 letters addressed to Jacobi, the mathematician; from Pro-
fessor Kronecker 80 written to Lejeune-Dirichlet ; 30 addressed
to Gauss, through the kindness of Professor Schering of Grottin-
gen ; 54 to Schumacher, lent, by his sons at Valparaiso and
Altona ; 30 to Karsten, Privy Counsellor of Mines, through his
son, Professor Karsten, of 9e>l ; 1 1 to W. Struve and Fuss,
through Herr Otto von Struve, Director of the Imperial
Observatory at Pulkowa ; and 330 to Encke, which have been
lent to me by his heirs. From Dr. Gr. von Boguslawski I have
received 28 letters addressed by Humboldt to his father, the
late Director of the Observatory at Breslau ; from Herr Carus
of Dresden 12, addressed to his father, late surgeon to the king
and President of the Academy of Leopold-Charles ; and from
Dr. H. Vogel 9, addressed to the late Herr Vogel, Inspector
of Schools, the father of the unfortunate African explorer.
For a valuable collection of 50 letters I am indebted to Madame
Richards-G-agiotti, of Florence, and to Von Madler, formerly
Director of the Observatory at Dorpat, I am indebted for 19.


My thanks also are due to Professor Gralle of Breslau, Dr.
Luther of Bilk, Herr Reich of Freiberg, W. Weber of Grottingen,
Herr Wild of St. Petersburg, and Dr.Focke of Bremen, from
whom I have received various letters addressed either to them
or to their scientific friends.

From General Count von Helmersen of St. Petersburg, from
Herr Paschen of Schwerin, and others, I have received various
communications concerning Humboldt's scientific labours. I
am indebted to Herr Hermann of Cologne for 16 letters
addressed by Humboldt while a student at Grottingen to his
fellow-collegian Wegener ; while I have been furnished with a
series of 61 letters addressed to Eisenstein, the mathematician,
by the committee organised for the erection of a memorial to
Humboldt at Berlin.

I have also been so fortunate as to obtain possession of all
the papers belonging to Humboldt which at the time of his
death fell into the hands of his confidential attendant, Herr
Seifert. These consisted of 500 letters of recent date, most of
them written within ten years of his death, from royal per-
sonages, statesmen, men of science, and artists, besides various
sketches of maps and many original treatises, poems, &c., that
were presentations to Humboldt. I am also indebted to Herr
Seifert for the communication of several orders in Council, the
loan of some private letters an^an insight into some of the
details of his domestic history.

In addition to the foregoing I may also mention that I have
received various letters and other documents from Herr Fried-
lander of Berlin, from Herr von Hermann of Munich, from
Herr von Carnall, from Professor Eudolph Wagner of Grottingen,
from Dr. Henry Lange of Berlin, from Romer of Lothein, near
Meissen, from Herr von Locher, from Herr Lehfeldt, from
Frau Groldschmidt nee, Kunth, from Fraiilein Schwenken of
Langendeinbach, and others.

From the Superintendents of the Royal Archives of Berlin I
received permission to inspect the public records containing any
reference to Humboldt, and I am indebted to them for much


valuable information in reply to my numerous inquiries.
Through the kindness of Herr von Weber, Director of the
Koyal Archives at Dresden, I was allowed to have access to the
State documents, and make abstracts from the various papers
having reference to Humboldt. By Professor Grneist of Berlin
I was offered the use of 295 letters to Bockh, which were
found among his papers. From Herr Of. Rose I received a
valuable addition to the Cancrin correspondence, consisting of
a number of unpublished letters and several important orders
in Council ; through the kindness of Professors Bellermann,
Curtius, Dove, and others, I have been granted a perusal of the
letters addressed to them by Humboldt.

To all those who have thus kindly assisted in the compi-
lation of this biography I would here express my most grateful

The words of William von Humboldt, which have been
selected as the motto for the first volume : ' My only conception
of biography is that of historical truth,' have served as a
guiding principle throughout the work.

In portraying the early life of Humboldt, in particular, the
Author has regarded it as a duty, not so much to controvert the
false and unfounded representations that have prevailed hitherto
regarding this period, but rather to support the statements of
a very different character, by the introduction of proofs never
before published.

For the compilation of the second section, containing the
narrative of the expeditions to America and Asia, the principal
source of information has been the works published by Hum-
boldt himself, which, however, were never wholly completed.
These have therefore been supplemented by a careful investi-
gation of his manuscript journals, and of many published and
unpublished letters relating to that period. The expedition to
Asia, though separated by half a lifetime from the travels in
America, presented so much similarity in subject and mode of
treatment that it was deemed advisable to include them in the
same section.


The third section, which contains an account of his residence
in Paris, where for eighteen years he was closely occupied with
the preparation of his works and the arrangements necessary
for their publication, is also founded partly on information
derived from printed matter already before the public and
partly from manuscript letters and documents.

In the preparation of the fourth section, which treats of
Humboldt's life at Berlin, from the year 1827, when he took
up his residence in his native city, till his death, a vast amount
of material has been at the disposal of the Author, enabling him
to introduce much new matter relating to this period, as well
as to correct many errors that have largely prevailed.

The elaborate catalogue of all the works, treatises, and mis-
cellaneous writings of Humboldt, constituting the fifth section,
will, as a first attempt to reduce this literary chaos into any-
thing like system and order, be welcomed by all those who value
accuracy even in the most trivial facts in literature.

It was found almost impossible in arranging for the compila-
tion of the sixth section, so to classify the various scientific
subjects that in the eight treatises, each of which was entrusted
to a different author, there should be on the one hand no
omissions of importance and on the other hand no unnecessary
repetitions. The names of the several authors are a sufficient
guarantee for the complete and accurate treatment of the sub-
jects they have taken in hand.

Of the three portraits illustrating the work, that in the first
volume is engraved from a chalk drawing in the possession of
Fran von Biilow ; it was taken in the year 1796, and has never
before been published. The portrait in the second volume,
which also appears through the kind permission of Frau von
Biilow, was taken at Paris in 1814, and is interesting from the
fact that it is copied from a drawing made by Humboldt him-
self from the looking-glass. The third portrait is from an
oil-painting by Eduard Hildebrandt, with whom Humboldt was
on terms of intimate friendship ; and this picture, in the pos-


session of Herr Seifert, is one of the few portraits painted by
this highly-gifted artist.

According to the scheme originally planned by the Editor,
the work was to have appeared in the Easter of 1871 ; but no
more elaborate excuse need be furnished for the delay than is
to be found in the exciting events affecting the greater part of
Europe during the summer of 1870 and the spring of 1871.

May the united efforts of the various Authors to afford to the
present generation a complete and faithful picture of Alexander
von Humboldt, both in his life and labours, meet with the kind
reception due to their exertions.

It is in this hope that, upon the recurring anniversary of his
death, I present this work, not only to every votary of science,
but to every friend of intellectual progress, as an intellectual
memorial of Humboldt in commemoration of the centenary of
his birth.


LEIPZIG : May 6, 1872.









Signification of Name Traditional History Ancestry and Parentage
Tegeland Childhood Tutors, and Bent of Mind Universal Enthusiasm
for Geographical Discovery Overwork and Illness Preparations for
the University State of Society at Berlin .... PAGE 3


The University of Frankfort Studies in Finance and Philology The Win-
ter of 1788 at Berlin The University of Gottingen Short Journeys
' Observations on some Basalts of the Rhine ' Journey with George
Forster- School of Commerce at Hamburg Application for Official
Employment School of Mines at Freiberg 44



Assessor of Mines Animus of Official Administration Official Employ-
ment only a Stepping-stone to more important Scientific Schemes
Commission in Franconia Appointment as Superintendent of Mines



Extension of Commission to January 1793 Visit to Berlin 'Flora
Fribergensis ' Experiments on Sensitive Organisms Commencement
of Official Employment in Franconia, May 1793 Condition of Fran-
coma Free Schools for Miners Practical Undertakings Scientific

Online LibraryC. (Carl) BruhnsLife of Alexander von Humboldt : compiled in commemoration of the centenary of his birth (Volume 1) → online text (page 1 of 39)