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Friedrich Wilhelm Heinrich Alexander von Humboldt (14 September 1769 – 6 May 1859) was a Prussian polymath, geographer, naturalist, explorer, and influential proponent of Romantic philosophy and science. He was the younger brother of the Prussian minister, philosopher, and linguist Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767–1835). Humboldt's quantitative work on botanical geography laid the foundation for the field of biogeography. Humboldt's advocacy of long-term systematic geophysical measurement laid the foundation for modern geomagnetic and meteorological monitoring.
Between 1799 and 1804, Humboldt travelled extensively in Latin America, exploring and describing it for the first time from a modern scientific point of view. His description of the journey was written up and published in an enormous set of volumes over 21 years. Humboldt was one of the first people to propose that the lands bordering the Atlantic Ocean were once joined (South America and Africa in particular). Humboldt resurrected the use of the word cosmos from the ancient Greek and assigned it to his multi-volume treatise, Kosmos, in which he sought to unify diverse branches of scientific knowledge and culture. This important work also motivated a holistic perception of the universe as one interacting entity. He was the first person to describe the phenomenon and cause of human-induced climate change, in 1800 and again in 1831, based on observations generated during his travels.
Much of Humboldt's private life remains a mystery because he destroyed his private letters. While a gregarious personality, he may have harbored a sense of social alienation, which drove his passion for escape through travel.
Humboldt never married: while he was charmed by a number of attractive women, including Henriette, the wife of his mentor Marcus Herz, his sister-in-law Caroline von Humboldt stated "nothing will ever have a great influence on Alexander that doesn't come through men." He had many strong male friendships, and at times had romances with men.
As a student he became infatuated with Wilhelm Gabriel Wegener, a theology student, penning a succession of letters expressing his "fervent love". At 25 he met Reinhardt von Haeften (19 May 1772 – 20 October 1803), a 21-year-old lieutenant, with whom he lived and travelled for two years, and to whom he wrote in 1794: "I only live through you, my good precious Reinhardt." When von Haeften became engaged, Humboldt begged to remain living with him and his wife: "Even if you must refuse me, treat me coldly with disdain, I should still want to be with you...the love I have for you is not just friendship or brotherly love, it is veneration."
A travelling companion in the Americas for five years was Aimé Bonpland, and in Quito in 1802 he met the Ecuadorian aristocrat Don Carlos Montúfar, who travelled with Humboldt to Europe and lived with him. In France, Humboldt travelled and lived with the physicist and balloonist Joseph Louis Gay Lussac. Later he had a deep friendship with the married French astronomer François Arago, whom he met daily for 15 years.
Humboldt once wrote, "I don't know sensual needs." However, a pious travelling companion, Francisco José de Caldas, accused him of frequenting houses in Quito where "impure love reigned", of making friends with "obscene dissolute youths", of giving vent to "shameful passions of his heart", and dropping him to travel with "Bonpland and his Adonis"[Monúfar].
Humboldt inherited a significant fortune, but the expense of his travels, and most especially of publishing (thirty volumes in all), had by 1834 made him totally reliant on the pension of King Frederick William III. Although he preferred living in Paris, by 1836 the King had insisted he return to Germany. He lived with the Court at Sanssouci, and latterly in Berlin, with his valet Seifert, who had accompanied him to Russia in 1829.
Four years before his death, Humboldt executed a deed of gift transferring his entire estate to the dominating Seifert, who had by then married and set up a household near Humboldt's apartment. Humboldt had become godfather to his daughter. The scale of the bequest has always drawn speculation, especially as Seifert was some thirty years younger, and introducing lower class partners into households under the guise of servants was then a common practice.
In 1908, the sexual researcher Paul Näcke gathered reminiscences from homosexuals including Humboldt's friend the botanist Karl Bolle, then 90 years old: some of the material was incorporated by Magnus Hirschfeld into his 1914 study Homosexuality in Men and Women. However, speculations about Humboldt's private life and possible homosexuality continue to remain a fractious issue amongst scholars, particularly as earlier biographers had portrayed him as "a largely asexual, Christ-like Humboldt figure...suitable as a national idol."
Tegel Palace, Adelheidallee 19, 13507 Berlin, Germania
On 24 February 1857, Humboldt suffered a minor stroke, which passed without perceptible symptoms. It was not until the winter of 1858–1859 that his strength began to decline; on 6 May 1859, he died peacefully in Berlin, aged 89. His last words were reported to be "How glorious these sunbeams are! They seem to call Earth to the Heavens!" His remains were conveyed in state through the streets of Berlin, in a hearse drawn by six horses. Royal chamberlains led the cortège, each charged with carrying a pillow with Humboldt's medals and other decorations of honor. Humboldt's extended family, descendants of his brother Wilhelm, walked in the procession. Humboldt's coffin was received by the prince-regent at the door of the cathedral. He was interred at the family resting-place at Tegel, alongside his brother Wilhelm and sister-in-law Caroline.
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