The Incredible Alexander Von Humboldt

German geologist, botanist, geographer, and explorer, Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), was arguably the most important naturalist of the 19th century. Place names honoring him are not even limited to planet earth; on the moon, both a crater and lunar sea bear his name. Parks, forests, cities, counties, and mountain ranges from Tasmania to China to Venezuela have been named in his honor. The state of Nevada was almost called Humboldt. His place in the pantheon had already been secured when, at the age of 76, he published the first two volumes of his masterwork, “Kosmos,” in which he sought to unify the diverse branches of scientific and cultural knowledge. It was an international sensation, influencing everyone from Darwin to Thoreau, and obviously Carl Sagan. It was Humboldt who first saw nature as an interconnected “web of life.”

From “The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World”  by Andrea Wulf: “Almost 300 plants and more than 100 animals are named after him — including the fierce predatory six-foot Humboldt squid . . . which can be found in the Humboldt Current.” And construction is currently underway at the Roger Williams Park Zoo for a new exhibit which will house six breeding pairs of Humboldt penguins.

In Providence we honored the man with Humboldt Avenue, initially laid out in the early 1870s as part of the last subdivision of the original parcel of land owned by Moses Brown.

Historian Florence Simister detailed Humboldt’s life of achievement in her “Streets of the City” broadcast*, adding this local note:

That section of of our city was once a nature-lover’s paradise, with ravines and woods and brooks and wild flowers growing in profusion. There is still today on the street a private park.

The gate to the Gladys Potter Park (known unofficially as “the baby park”) has a dedication plaque (below) which mentions the ravine. I believe this ravine continued east towards the river, and can still be seen from the sidewalk on the east side of Butler Avenue, standing with the Lincoln School on your right.

Now . . . was Humboldt gay? Author Wulf addresses this in her biography and on her excellent 2020 program “Humboldt: Epic Explorer,” available now on the Smithsonian Channel, suggesting:

Most historians today agree that Humboldt was gay. He was never very interested in women. He had very intense relationships with younger men, but how much he lived these physically we will never know.

Wulf ‘s caution in drawing conclusions in the absence of clear-cut evidence is exactly what one wants in an historian, but it is hard to read the known facts of Humboldt’s life and come to any other conclusion. For instance, he spent months living in Quito, studying the volcanoes of South America, all the while fending off the young society ladies, including the governor’s beautiful daughter Rosa. From the Wulf book, “The irony was that Rosa’s handsome brother, Carlos Montúfar, now became Humboldt’s companion — a pattern of friendship that repeated itself in Humboldt’s life.” Carlos remained with Humboldt for the remainder of the expedition.

I strongly recommend both the book and the program. What a life! Among the notables who crossed paths with Humboldt were Simón Bolíver, the poet Goethe, and President Thomas Jefferson. (Humboldt wanted to love the American experiment but was appalled by slavery, becoming a vehement and vocal abolitionist.) He died in 1859 at the age of 89.

*Big thanks to Kate Wells, Curator of Rhode Island Collections at the Providence Public Library, who accessed a set of transcripts from Simister’s original “Streets of the City” broadcasts for WEAN radio, pieces not included in her book of the same name.

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Painted by Emma Gaggiotti-Richards when Humboldt was 86 years of age, this portrait of Humboldt hangs in the National Portrait Gallery.

Gladys Potter Park on Humboldt Avenue.

[Added 7/15/23. Providence map from 1882 shows a small pond between Wayland and Humboldt. A stream continues down to the Seekonk River.]

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