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Name: Alexander von Humboldt

Nationality: German

Lived: September 1769 to May 1859

Featured in: History Heroes EXPLORER

Famous for: Being the ‘greatest scientific traveller who ever lived

Early Life

Alexander and his brother Wilhelm were raised by their mother after the death of their father in 1779 when Alexander was only 9.  Alexander was tutored at home and enjoyed collecting different plants, insects and shells. He went to the University of Gottingen which had been founded in 1734 by King George II, it was here, that his interest in the world of science really began. Between 1790 and 1792 he studies mineralogy and geology at the recently established (1766)  School of Mines in Frieberg. He studied hard and spent mornings underground in the mines and in the afternoons he would scour the country for plants.

Adult Life

When Alexandra was 29 his mother died and with this new financial independence he began to plan his first voyage to South America – countries now known as Venezuela, Cuba, Columbia, Ecuador, Peru and Mexico. Later voyages included trips to Asia.

Charles Darwin described Alexander as ‘the greatest scientific traveller, who ever lived’.  His friends and colleagues included British naturalist Sir Joseph Banks, and French Botanist Aime Bonpland eminent  explorers of the time.


He climbed the Andes in 1800 and mapped over 1700 miles of the Orinoco River. He discovered a current in the Pacific, which is now named after him. So are the penguins that were discovered, swimming in that current – Humboldt penguins along with the several species of flora and fauna named after him too. Humboldt’s life as an explorer yielded countless discoveries.


Humboldt can also be described as a visionary. He discovered similarities between climate zones across the world. He predicted human-induced climate change. He was the first person to realise that mountain sickness was the result of lack of oxygen at high altitude. Humboldt was seen as one of the greatest explorers and scientists of his age. Strange then, that he is not better known or recognised in history. His discoveries and theories were revolutionary and ground breaking in the first half of the nineteenth century, when he lived. Could it be that Humboldt’s thoughts were so modern in scope that we almost take them for granted now?

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