At Large

Fame Fizzles, But Not Always

The story of the great Alexander von Humboldt.

By 9.14.07

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"Fame is the spur," wrote John Milton. In 1674 he thus added a new twist to "Fame is ephemeral -- fame and the famous as well," declared by Marcus Aurelius in ancient Rome. Andy Warhol had the last word: Everyone gets 15 minutes of fame. Today's Hollywood celebrities such as Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan, famous for being famous, seem to be using egg timers to stay within the Warhol time limit.

It wasn't always so. Living as I now do in Humboldt County, on California's northern coast, I was curious about its namesake and did some research. It happens that the 238th anniversary of Alexander von Humboldt's birth takes place on Friday, September 14. Hardly anyone today remembers who he was, but his fame way outlasted the Warhol Rule. He was famous all over Europe, the Americas and Asia for several decades of the 19th century and beyond.

Had he lived today, Humboldt would have been dubbed by the media a "scientist's scientist." He made no seminal discovery that changed the world in the way Copernicus, Galileo and Isaac Newton did. His curiosity was so far-ranging, however, that he was, at one and the same time, an artist, author, botanist, cartographer, naturalist and scholar of sociology.

Born in 1769 to a Prussian military officer and an ambitious mother, Humboldt grew up on an estate just outside Berlin. He launched his career as an inspector of mines at age 22. He organized a free school for miners and, from his notes, wrote a book about underground flora.

Five years later his mother died and left him wealthy, free to roam the world in the service of science. A child of the Enlightenment, but an adult in the Industrial Revolution, he sought scientific proof for many a theory. By the time his major traveling was done, in the 1840s, his discoveries had expanded the world's horizons in the fields of anthropology, archaeology, botany, geography, meteorology, mineralogy, oceanography and zoology.

His epic journey through Central and South America in 1799-1804 yielded many discoveries and saw him reach an elevation of 19,286 in the Andes (a world record at the time) and, soon after, plodding through Amazon jungles in search of the river's source. Up and down volcanoes, he decided they came from fissures deep the earth, thus upending the popular view that they were built up from ancient oceans.

On that journey, he stopped in Washington, D.C. on the way home to dine with President Jefferson. He then settled in Paris, where the stimulating intellectual life pleased him in contrast to Berlin's provincialism at the time. He later traveled the length and breadth of Russia to expand his knowledge of the planet further.

Humboldt became the toast of Paris and the continent. His praises were sung worldwide. Charles Darwin called him "the greatest scientific traveler who ever lived." Cities and towns scrambled to attach his name to them in the hope that his intellectual prowess would rub off on them. The list of his namesakes is not endless, but very long: 14 towns in the United States and Canada, U.S. counties in California, Nevada and Iowa, a river, several flowers and shrubs, mountains in North and South America, Antarctica, Australia and New Zealand, a glacier in Greenland, a "sea" on the moon, a large bay in California, universities in Germany and California, a major ocean current, a penguin and a seven-foot-long squid that migrated from South America to Monterey Bay in California this summer, nearly gobbling up all the marine life there.

All that fame spurred him on to greater efforts, not just for fame a la today's pop culture, but to expand scientific knowledge. In 1845, when he was 75, the first volume of Cosmos, his masterwork, was published. The fourth volume came out in 1858 when he was 88. That was a year before he died.

What of Alexander von Humboldt now? He's not often mentioned, but then Paris Hilton hasn't had 14 towns and a giant squid named after her. Those will last longer than 15 minutes.

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About the Author
Peter Hannaford was closely associated with the late President Reagan for a number of years. He is a member of the board of the Committee on the Present Danger. His latest book is “Presidential Retreats.”