Alexander von Humboldt was born in Prussia in 1769 to a wealthy family. As a young boy, he explored his father’s estate, keenly examining the flowering blossoms, trees, and plants.
Humboldt’s mother, however, disapproved of his growing interest in botany. She insisted that he study law. Humboldt obeyed and began a distinguished career in civil service. But when his mother died, Humboldt abruptly abandoned his job and about a year later, in 1799, booked passage to Mexico. “What a wealth of observation I shall collect here on the earth’s construction,” he wrote. “What happiness lies before me. I am dizzy with joy.”
Humboldt, accompanied by a Frenchman named Aime Bonpland, landed in Caracas, Venezuela, and began sketching and collecting samples of the flowers, trees, and animals in the country.
In February 1800, Humboldt and Bonpland journeyed south into the interior toward the Amazon River. The heat grew unbearable, and the party began traveling at night and dozing during the day in hammocks.
The two men collected samples, even capturing electric eels in a swamp. Humboldt, impatient to understand the eels’ ability to shock, placed his hands on an eel’s barrel and was soon screaming in pain.
The expedition continued south into jungles dense with foliage and loud with the screams of monkeys and the sinister growling of jaguars. The rivers and streams swarmed with vicious piranha, which could strip meat from bone in minutes.
Humboldt was fascinated by the teeming life around him, and in his curiosity left nothing unexamined. He spent more than four years in South America and Mexico, eventually bringing 60,000 samples back to Europe.
Humboldt devoted the next 23 years to sorting and publishing his findings, which eventually filled 30 volumes.