In the Footsteps of Humboldt

Alexander von Humboldt is one of the most influential people you’ve probably never heard of. Yet you’ve likely heard the name, whether you know it or not. His name adorns cities and schools, mountains and glaciers, and a dozen plants and animals including the Humboldt penguins at the St. Louis Zoo. When combined, there are more places, plants, and animals named after Humboldt than any other person.

Celebrate Humboldt’s 250th Birthday at the Stephen and Peter Sachs Museum

Who is Humboldt?

Humboldt was a German aristocrat whose vast and varied expertise included geology, geography, botany, and climatology. In 1799 he set off on a five-year exploration of Latin America, the results of which would catapult him to global recognition.

“I shall try to find how the forces of nature interact upon one another and how the geographic environment influences plant and animal life. In other words, I must find out about the unity of nature.”

Alexander von Humboldt

Humboldt is credited with founding the scientific field of biogeography—studying species distribution across time and location. His observations also provided early insights on the movement of ocean currents. Humboldt was one of the first people to predict human-caused climate change, and spoke out strongly against slavery and colonialism. Some even regard him as a forefather of the infographic.

His work influenced world leaders like Thomas Jefferson and naturalists like John Muir and Charles Darwin. He also caught the attention of Henry Shaw, who commissioned a statue of Humboldt in Tower Grove Park.

It’s not really clear why Humboldt’s name and accomplishments faded from public accolade. But botanists at the Missouri Botanical Garden come across his name almost every day.

Exploring Ecuador

During his famous voyage across Latin America Humboldt and his traveling companion, French botanist Aimé Bonpland, collected thousands of plants. Many of their discoveries were new to science. When our researchers categorize, identify, and discover new plants they must always refer to the first published name of that plant or its relatives. In the case of Garden botanists who work in the countries Humboldt visited, it’s fair to say his name comes up—a lot.

Curator Carmen Ulloa is one of those researchers. Humboldt spent the better part of 1802 exploring her native Ecuador. His exploits there included climbing Chimborazo volcano, the highest peak in Ecuador and one of the tallest mountains in the Americas.

Ulloa’s research focuses on plants of the Andes Mountains, many of which were first discovered by Humboldt and Bonpland in 1802. And her work frequently crosses paths with one of Humboldt’s more well-known studies—biogeography. That concept is used today to create species distribution models.

Simply put, these models use habitat data such as elevation, temperature, and rainfall to try and predict other locations where a species might be found. Ulloa has carried out ground-truthing of these models to test their accuracy.

Ulloa notes a few other intersections between herself and Humboldt. In a famous portrait of Humboldt, he can be seen pressing a collection of Meriania speciosa. It’s a plant in the Melastomataceae, or princess flower, family and a specialty of Ulloa’s research. She and her team even spent a few days in the same hotel Humboldt and Bonpland visited in 1802.

Learn more about Humboldt and his botanical journey through Ecuador during our October Member Speaker Series: Walking in Humboldt’s Footsteps.

The Chimborazo Map

Humboldt and Bonpland published many of the findings from their explorations in a work called Essai sur la géographie des plantes. The Missouri Botanical Garden’s Peter H. Raven Library owns several copies, including two original prints from 1805. The Garden digitized the work in 2008 for the Biodiversity Heritage Library. In 2014, the Garden’s book conservator began a conservation program to improve the physical integrity and functionality of the work, while maintaining as much original material and character as possible.

The Humboldt map of Mount Chimborazo. From the Missouri Botanical Garden’s Peter H. Raven Library.

Although the book is more than 200 years old, the information is still relevant to researchers like Ulloa today. A map contained in the book shows the species Humboldt and Bonpland found on their exploration of the Chimborazo volcano, and includes important data about their discoveries at different elevations. Scientists revisited those observations more than 200 years later, and found many of the plants had migrated to higher elevations in response to possible climate change.

Those findings show in many ways why Humboldt was so ahead of his time, and celebrated for it. His centuries-old infographic provides an incredibly detailed snapshot of a time and place that even today is the site of new discoveries and insights into our planet and its natural forces.

Cassidy Moody — Senior Digital Media Specialist

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