Alexander von Humboldt. Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent During the Years 1799-1804. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme & Browne, 1822 – 1829.  7 vols. Gift of Louise Bulkley Dillingham ’16.

 

     
 

Title

Volcano



 
 

Alexander von Humboldt’s thrilling account of his five years in Central and South America inspired a generation of scientists. One of these scientists was Charles Darwin, who read the Personal Narrative during his last year at Cambridge, less than a year before embarking on a similar voyage of his own on the Beagle. Humboldt, a German naturalist who lived from 1769 to 1859, received permission to conduct a scientific expedition in the Spanish colonies of Central and South America, an area previously closed to most outsiders by the Spanish government. For five years, he tramped through the rain forests of the Amazon and Orinoco Rivers, crossed the Andes Mountains, and studied both the natural history and social structures of Mexico, Cuba and the other Spanish colonies.   


His account was not just an adventure tale, but also a thorough record of the natural environment in which he found himself, with detailed descriptions of the plants, animals and landscapes he observed, and serious reflections on the meaning of what he saw. As a result of his expedition, he introduced several new species of animals to European science, developed influential ways of explaining weather patterns, demonstrated that the linear arrangement of volcanoes corresponds with fissures underneath the earth’s surface, and proposed that South America and Africa were once joined together. In addition to his Personal Narratives, Humboldt published a number of other books based on his travels, including Researches Concerning the Institutions & Monuments of the Ancient Inhabitants of America: With Descriptions & Views of Some of the Most Striking Scenes in the Cordilleras. These geological illustrations of Mexico come from the 1814 London edition of the book.


 Years later, Darwin credited the reading of Humboldt’s travel narrative with inspiring him to a life in science:


During my last year at Cambridge I read with care and profound interest Humboldt’s Personal Narrative. This work and Sir J. Herschel’s Introduction to the Study of Natural Philosophy stirred up in me a burning zeal to add even the most humble contributions to the noble structure of Natural Science. No one or a dozen other books influenced me nearly so much as these two.

 

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