von Humboldt, Alexander

German explorer and scientist

Alexander von Humboldt was a scientist and explorer who founded the field of plant biogeography, the analysis of the distribution of plants throughout the world. Humboldt was born in Germany and apprenticed with several leading German botanists as a young man. He also became trained as a geologist and worked for a time at the German Ministry of Mines.

By 1797, however, Humboldt had developed a wanderlust and thirst for adventure, and in 1799 he set out for South America to find out, as he put it, "how the geographic environment influences plant and animal life." While there, and despite many hardships, Humboldt made significant studies of the botany, zoology, geography, and climate of the region. He was probably the first European to recognize the rich diversity of the tropical flora.

Humboldt discovered that the distribution of plant groups could be correlated with changes in temperature and rainfall, laying the intellectual groundwork for developments in plant ecology that would come a century later. After leaving South America, Humboldt visited the United States and met with Thomas Jefferson, whose own thinking about scientific expeditions in America was probably influenced by these conversations. Humboldt's memory is honored in the names of rivers, mountains, and counties in the western United States.

SEE ALSO Biogeography ; Buffon, Count

Richard Robinson


von Humboldt, Alexander. Personal Narrative of a Journey to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent. New York: Penguin Books, 1995.

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