On the occasion of his 250th birthday, a German import offers an account of the life and exploits of the 19th century’s most renowned celebrity scientist.
Justly proclaiming von Humboldt a “blazing hero” of the transformation of science from the recondite pursuit of a few to a field of knowledge accessible to anyone, Mehnert retraces his expeditions through the Americas from 1799 to 1804 and into Siberia in 1829. He gathered crates full of specimens, intrepidly climbed volcanoes, mapped and took careful measurements, impulsively abandoned planned itineraries to hare off in search of rumored new wonders…then returned home to report on what he had seen and found, employing his gifts as a “mesmerizing storyteller” in a stream of popular books and lectures. Along with chronicling his long association with traveling companion Aimé Bonpland, a botanist of note, the author offers nods to some of his network of colleagues, from his sister-in-law Caroline von Humboldt to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Charles Darwin, and Simón Bolívar. His private life remains largely unexamined—including his likely same-sex relationships—but to round out his character and achievements, his sharp views on slavery and prescient insights on climate also get airings. Aside from a trio of maps the illustrations are largely just decorative landscapes or assemblages of tropical wildlife.
Hats off for a now-unconscionably little-known hero of science. (multimedia resource lists) (Biography. 10-13)