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Primary Sources and the Digital Generation: Alexander Von Humboldt

By August 17, 2015September 16th, 2023No Comments

Emmie Miller, graduate student in the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine at the University of Minnesota, recently teamed up with Lois Hendrickson, Curator of the Wangensteen Historical Library of Biology and Medicine, to bring primary resources to the digital generation.

Miller’s vision, “instead of steamed-milk hearts in their lattes, their phones would be full of images of century-old texts, complete with a usable hashtag, #Wangensteen.”

Ultimately, Miller asked her students to pair images taken from significant historical texts and incorporate them into a blog post that detailed the significance of the work.

What follows below is the second in a series of final projects that will be shared over the course of the next few weeks.


Alexander Von Humboldt

by Athen Engen-Viner and Jai Sahni

Alexander Von Humboldt, a German world traveler in the 19th century, was one of the most influential scientists and naturalists of his time. Humboldt’s groundbreaking work on botanical geography laid the foundation for the field of biogeography.

Between 1845 and 1862 he published Kosmos, a series of texts that highlighted the harmony of nature based on his world travels. He began these world travels, and ultimately his enlightening understanding in South America, where he spent a lot of time observing and exploring nature as well as collecting a wide range of animals, insects and flora.

On his travels, Humboldt noticed that vegetation varied greatly with latitude and temperature. For example, dense forests were generally found closer to the equatorial region, whereas latitudes closer to the poles housed regions like the tundra – holding vegetation that was not only scarce but very different from the equatorial region. Furthermore, Humboldt had the opinion that (Physiognomy) physical as well as mental characteristics of organisms were deeply connected to the environment and climate around them.

All these observations led Humboldt to believe that nature is a harmonious entity that is interconnected. The text above – “Picture of Nature” –  exemplifies two important aspects. The first aspect is that Alexander Von Humboldt in his text, Kosmos, gives an intense and vivid description of nature to his readers that can be compared to giving the readers an actual “Picture of Nature”. The second, but perhaps more important aspect is that the word “Picture” refers to a more comprehensive glance; a glance that is more complete and concrete. Humboldt’s ideas were based along these same lines.

He believed that to really understand nature, a person had to encompass all aspects of it and look at the “complete picture” rather than narrowing their gaze. Many scientists in the 19th and 20th century followed Humboldt’s lead by looking at life in a ‘holistic’ way – connecting their observations of geology, geography, biology, and meteorology to better contribute to the understanding of the larger picture.

Most notably, Charles Darwin was influenced by Humboldt’s discoveries, contributing to his theory of natural selection. Using scientific research and discoveries to find explanations for life’s biggest phenomena and mysteries is, to this day, defined as ‘Humboldtian Science’.


  1. “Alexander Von Humboldt.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 01 Mar. 2015.
  2. “Humboldtian Science.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 01 Mar. 2015.
  3. Rosenberg, Matt. “Alexander Von Humboldt – Founder of Modern Geography.” About Education, n.d. Web. 01 Mar. 2015.

About the Authors

Jai Sahni will be starting his sophomore year of his undergraduate degree in the fall. He is majoring in computer engineering. Jai is originally from India and upon completion of his degree, he hopes to find a job in the computer science industry. He aspires to, in his own words, help develop cutting edge technology.

Athen Engen-Viner is starting his sophomore year in the fall. Having participated in Greek life, Athen enjoys a busy social and academic life in which he is exploring the many opportunities open to college students at the U. Athen is majoring in business and advertising and has already participated in internships in these fields.

Erinn Aspinall

Author Erinn Aspinall

More posts by Erinn Aspinall

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