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Humboldt and England*

  • Jean Théodoridès


During his long life Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859) was mainly connected with three European countries: Germany, France and Russia; nevertheless, he had many scientific and personal relations with England, with British scientists, and with other distinguished citizens of Great Britain. Thus Humboldt's life provides an interesting example of international scientific relations in the nineteenth century. The present paper offers a brief account of this universal and versatile scientist's relations with England in particular.



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1 Cf. Acknerknecht, E. A., “George Forster, Alexander von Humboldt and Ethnology”, Isis, xlvi (1955), 8395. Humboldt had previously met Forster in Mainz.

2 Forster, G., Briefe und Tagebücher von seiner Reise am Niederrhein, in England und Frankreich, im Frühjahr 1790, Halle, 1893.

3 de Terra, H., The life and times of Alexander von Humboldt 1769–1859 (Knopf, New York, 1950), 42. See also Bruhns, K., A. von Humboldt, Leipzig, 1872, i, 290292.

4 Humboldt's characterization is confirmed by the following appreciation of Lord Bristol in the D.N.B.:

“His character betrayed all the eccentricity for which his family was remarkable and which had given rise to the saying that God had created men, women and Herveys.”

5 Quoted from Kellner, L., Alexander von Humboldt (London, Oxford University Press. 1963), 26.

6 Mr. N. S. Whitworth, Director of the British Institute at Barcelona, was good enough to look for traces of John Gille in the archives of the British Consulate at Barcelona, but in vain.

7 Op. cit., 29.

8 Biermann, K. R., “My goal is to reach the Sources of the Ganges”. Picture News (Leipzig), 11 1962.

9 Théodoridès, J., “Une amitié de savants au siècle dernier: Alexander von Humboldt et Achille Valenciennes (correspondance inédite)”, Biologie Médicale, No. hors-série, liv, Février 1965, 129 pp., 40 figs.

10 I wish to thank Miss Lancaster and Mr. Pearce for their kindness in pursuing inquiries at the India Office Library in London.

11 SirLyell, Charles, Life, letters and journals (London, 1881), i, 125126, 141, 146, 378.

12 Translated from the French: Correspondance d'Alexandre de Humboldt avec François Arago, ed. Hamy, (Paris, 1908), 2128.

13 The botanist Brown, Robert (17731858).

14 Kater, Henry (17771835), mathematician and astronomer.

15 Young, Thomas (17731829), physicist, physician, Egyptologist, exponent of the undulatory theory of light.

16 Somerville, Mary (17801872), scientific writer.

17 Théodoridès, J., op. cit., note 9.

18 Life and Letters of James David Forbes F.R.S. (London, 1873), 229.

19 The original letter is in the archives of the Royal Society.

20 Royal Society, Proceedings, iii (1836), 418.

21 Translated from the French Correspondance de Humboldt avec Arago (above, note 12), 225.

22 See further the present writer's communication on this subject to the XIth International Congress of the History of Science at Warsaw (August 1965).

23 Darwin, Charles, Life and Letters (London, 1887), i, 74.

24 The Royal Geographical Society possesses the French original of this letter, a translation of which was printed in its Journal, ix (1839), 502506.

25 Ross, Janet, Three Generations of Englishwomen, i (1888), 195.

26 Darwin, , Life and Letters, i, 336.

27 Ibid., ii, 43.

28 Kellner, L., op. cit., 193.

29 Lettres de Alexandre de Humboldt à Varnhagen von Ense (1827–58) (Paris, 1860), 113.

30 Life and Letters of Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker (London, 1918), i, 180, 185.

31 Ibid., ii, 185.

32 Ibid., ii, 127.

33 Beck, H., Gespräche Alexander von Humboldts (Berlin, Akademie-Verlag, 1959), 211212.

34 A newspaper cutting in the Wellcome Historical Medical Library (Humboldt MSS., 68277) reads as follows: “One of the most distinguished guests and one of the latest arrivals at the brilliant ball given by Lord Bloomfield at Berlin on Monday week, was Baron von Humboldt, now in his ninetieth year, but still fresh in intellectual and conversational powers, and in his relish for the pleasures of society. He allows neither his advanced age nor his great acquirements and world-wide fame to entitle him to any dispensation from the minutest and most scrupulous attention to etiquette and costume; he willingly condescends to assume his chamberlain's costume and his numerous orders, with all the careful attention to exterior befitting the most youthful and modest aspirant to court favour. His health, however, gives frequent occasions of uneasiness to his friends and admirers, though he rallies from each attack most surprisingly rapidly; it was only on that Monday afternoon that the King and Queen drove into Berlin on purpose to inquire into his health, and in the evening he was at Lord Bloomfield's ball”

35 Life and Letters of J. D. Hooker, ii, 223224.

36 Darwin, Charles, Life and Letters, iii, 247.

* This lecture was delivered at Imperial College, London, on 12 May 1965. The author wishes to thank the Trustees of the Wellcome Foundation, Dr. N. Poynter, and Professor A. Rupert Hall for arranging the lecture; as also Herr F. Lange and Dr. K. R. Biermann (of the Humboldt Kommission in Berlin) for supplying information, and Dr. and Mrs. J. Schiller and Miss R. Harlock for kind assistance in preparing this English manuscript.

Humboldt and England*

  • Jean Théodoridès


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