Posts Tagged ‘discovery’


November 26, 2008

  Among the seven books that different friends and family gave me for my birthday – they have rightly guessed that I like a good book, or either they are getting even with me for giving them books for their birthdays – is David McCullough’s Brave Companions: Portraits in History.  This book brings home the fact that there are a lot of important, interesting people that I don’t know about, and I have read a lot of history and taken a number of history courses.


Baron Alexander von Humboldt, German naturalist, painted by Joseph Stieler, 1843 (Courtesy: Wikipedia)

  Ever heard of Baron Alexander von Humboldt, the great German naturalist, scientist and explorer? Who? Well, I hadn’t either until I read the opening chapter in McCullough’s book. I guess we really don’t have to feel bad about it because McCullough says, “It is doubtful that one educated American in ten could say exactly who Humbolt was or what he did.” I’ll bet it’s not more than one in one hundred. However, it’s probably close to ten out of ten who have heard of the great American explorers Lewis and Clark. That’s because Lewis and Clark’s travels were in the United States, but Humboldt’s were in Spanish America. However, Humbolt’s travels were of far greater scientific consequence, and were just as dramatically adventurous.

  That adventure started in 1799 when he and a French medical doctor turned botanist, Amie Bonpland, set out to explore Spain’s American colonies, where they would make maps, astronomical observations, and collect specimins for scientific study. When they returned to Europe their stories were a sensation and Humbolt became celebrated the world over, inspiring people like Simon Bolivar, John James Audubon, and Charles Darwin, who, during the voyage of the Beagle, carried three book to inspire him,  The Bible,  Milton, and Humbolt. President Thomas Jefferson invited him to the White House where he stayed for several weeks so that that they could talk about Humbolt’s travels and discoveries. Jefferson said, “I consider him the most important scientist whom I have met.”  So this was quite a guy, one who made a lasting contribution to science and understanding nature and the environment. But, I’d never heard of him until now. 

  Now, I continue my advernture of discovery about important people in Brave Companions as I move on to Chapter Two, where I will learn about the American Adventure of Louis Agassiz.  Who? Well, I’ll tell you after I learn.

Baron Alexander von Humboldt, self-portait, 1814  Since the camera hadn't been invented, it was handy for an explorer to be able to sketch. He could.

Baron Alexander von Humboldt, self-portrait, 1814 (Courtesy: Wikipedia) Since the camera hadn't been invented yet, being able to sketch was essential for an explorer.