On June 5, 1799, 30-year-old Alexander von Humboldt set out with Aimé Bonpland on the first meticulous and extensive scientific exploration of Central and South America. During their 5-year journey, they faced ravenous insects, typhoid fever, dysentery, blizzards, floods, thunderstorms, earthquakes, jaguars, and fish with enough voltage to kill a horse. They gathered some 60,000 specimens of rocks and plants while taking copious notes on climate, animals, volcanoes, the earth’s magnetism, and ocean currents.
This expedition has been called the scientific discovery of America. Publishing the results took 20 years. You can judge their importance by the fact that the 30-volume set was one of the few works Charles Darwin packed when he sailed with the Beagle in 1831.
Humboldt was one of those rare men who was fascinated by the trees as well as the forest. He collected masses of quantitative data, but he also integrated his findings in biology, geology, and meteorology. It made him one of the most famous scientists and intellectuals of the 19th century - a familiar face in Paris, Berlin, and London.
Decades after the Latin American expedition, Humboldt began the massive Cosmos, in which he attempted to create an integrated view of all of nature. Published in 5 volumes starting in 1845, Cosmos became one of the most widely read science books ever written. The view of the universe that Humboldt sets out may well have influenced Calvert Vaux as he worked on the sculptural program on Bethesda Terrace.
This bust of Humboldt was unveiled in 1869 - the 100th anniversary of Humboldt’s birth. It was originally placed near Fifth Avenue and 59th Street, the Park’s most prominent entrance. Aside from acknowledging Humboldt’s importance, that site put him near the proposed site of a natural-history museum that the Board of Commissioners was planning to install in an Arsenal that would be radically renovated according to a Victorian Gothic plan by Richard Morris Hunt.
Instead, the museum eventually got spanking new quarters uptown, designed by Calvert Vaux. In 1981, Humboldt was moved to Central Park West at 77th Street, where he now faces the American Museum of Natural History.