Alexander von Humboldt: Cartographer Extraordinaire

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Scientific illustrations, Humboldt once wrote, should “speak to the senses without fatiguing the mind.” His famous illustration of Chimborazo volcano in Ecuador shows plant species living at different elevations. (Public domain / Wikimedia Commons)

Health Editor’s Note: When looking over Alexander von Humboldt’s lifetime accomplishments, I thought he deserved to be either remembered or discovered by VT readers…..Carol

Beautiful and insightful, the illustrations of the German naturalist helped shape a new understanding of the world

by Greg Miller Smithsonian.com

The German naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt was one of the most celebrated scientists of the 19th century. In 1869, on the 100th anniversary of his birth, 25,000 people gathered in New York’s Central Park to listen to speeches extolling his accomplishments and witness the unveiling of a large bronze bust of Humboldt, who had died ten years earlier. Flags and enormous posters showing Humboldt’s face lined the streets of Manhattan. Similar celebrations took place around the world—in Berlin, Humboldt’s birthplace, 80,000 admirers gathered in the chilly rain to listen to eulogies and songs sung in his honor.

It’s hard to imagine any modern scientist achieving such celebrity, and now, 250 years after his birth, Humboldt himself has largely been forgotten by the general public. But as historian Andrea Wulf wrote in her 2015 biography of Humboldt, The Invention of Nature, his scientific legacy lives on in scores of geographic features and place names, from a glacier in Greenland to a mountain range in Antarctica. (The state of Nevada was almost named Humboldt, Wulf writes.) The Latin names of nearly 300 plants and more than 100 animals pay homage to him, including the aggressive, predatory Humboldt squid, which can grow up to eight feet long and weigh 100 pounds.

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