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Northeastern Naturalist, Volume 8, Special Issue 1 (2001):5–8

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Proceedings: Alexander von Humboldt’s Natural History Legacy and Its Relevance for Today 2001 Northeastern Naturalist Special Issue 1:5-8 ALEXANDER VON HUMBOLDT’S NATURAL HISTORY LEGACY AND ITS RELEVANCE FOR TODAY – OPENING REMARKS JOHN SILBER * I am honored and pleased to welcome you to this historic symposium on the work of Alexander von Humboldt. I wish to express our thanks to Dr. Peter Hauswedell, Dr. Lutz Görgens, and the staff of the German Consulate, to the Humboldt Field Research Institute who are co-sponsors with Boston University of this symposium, and to Professors Lotze who have contributed greatly to its conception and implementation. The very title of the symposium, “Humboldt’s Natural History Legacy and its Relevance for Today,” reminds us of Goethe’s dictum, “Was du ererbt von deinen Vätern hast/ Erwirb es, um es zu besitzen.” We have no legacy, we have no tradition, unless through great effort we take possession of it. This is evident in the fact that very few people today know of Alexander von Humboldt’s contributions to science. If we asked a man on the street in America or a person on the Clapham omnibus in England, “Who was Alexander von Humboldt?” not one in a hundred would know, and I suspect not more than one in 25 in Germany would know who he was or what he had done. If a German thought he knew, I suspect he would likely confuse Alexander with his famous brother Wilhelm, the philologist and statesman who defined the purpose and organization of the research university. Both Alexander and Wilhelm figure in the history of Boston University. The first division of Boston University was founded in 1839 with the opening of the first Methodist seminary in the United States, but Boston University was not chartered as a university until 1869, the centennial of Alexander von Humboldt’s birth. Our course of studies then included many of those fields in which he had accomplished pioneering work: geography, botany, zoology, meteorology, and non-fictional literature. In addition, many professors on our faculty had studied the work of Alexander von Humboldt during their student years in Germany. However, we are also indebted to Wilhelm for his contributions to the development of the university on the American model. Before the Civil War, even the most eminent American institutions were little more than colleges. This status was dramatically altered by the presence of large numbers of American academics who completed their education * Chancellor, Boston University, 147 Bay State Street, Boston, MA 02215. 6 Northeastern Naturalist Special Issue 1 by advanced study in Germany. There they found educational institutions developed on the Humboldtian model, institutions of a complexity and rationality of organization for which there were few if any parallels in the United States or in England. Some American scholars were determined to return home and establish institutions of higher learning that would try to emulate the comprehensive, graduate-level research and teaching of the Humboldtian university while maintaining a concern for undergraduate education that was typical of the American college. Among these American scholars who returned home from Germany driven by a vision of a new kind of university was William Fairfield Warren, the founding president of Boston University. He has, in my mind, been somewhat unfairly eclipsed by the reputations of his colleagues and contemporaries Charles W. Eliot of Harvard, Andrew Dickson White of Cornell, and Daniel Coit Gilman of Johns Hopkins. None of these distinguished figures was ahead of Dr. Warren in adapting the Humboldtian model of the university to the United States by grafting the German university onto the American college. By 1874, Boston University numbered five schools and colleges—graduate and undergraduate schools of liberal arts, theology, law, and medicine. Warren at this point was abreast of Dr. Eliot at Harvard and ahead of White at Cornell. Gilman was not to begin his work at Johns Hopkins until its founding two years later. At Boston University we are very much aware of our debt to both Alexander and Wilhelm von Humboldt and the German university. Indeed, if Goethe had written Faust on the basis of experience at Boston University (or any other American research university), he would still have Faust declare, Habe nun ach Philosophie Juristerei und Medizin Und leider auch Theologie Durchaus studiert ... (Faust, Erster Teil, ll. 354-357) Although I have welcomed more than a hundred symposia to Boston University over the last quarter-century, it is only on the rarest occasions that I have been privileged to open a symposium with such a diverse and superbly qualified list of participants. It is, in fact, a tribute to Alexander von Humboldt’s enormous, indeed unlimited, range of interests that we must include among our participants experts in glacial and Quaternary geology; scientific literature, history, and biography; botany and zoology; tropical, insect, behavioral, and landscape ecology; and physical, plant, and cultural geography. Although Alexander had little appreciation for music, one participant is in fact a remarkable musician and biologist. 2001 J. Silber 7 It is particularly appropriate that our list of participants includes Loren McIntyre, an explorer, who will deliver the keynote address. His inclusion is of particular importance, for Alexander von Humboldt was a tireless explorer and adventurer of the intensity, determination, and perseverance of Richard Burton, with whom von Humboldt shared an interest in tracing uncharted rivers to their source. Like Burton, he was a man of enormous physical strength and endurance. Most importantly, perhaps, he must have had an incomparably powerful immune system to have come through all the ordeals of his adventures in the jungles of South America without having succumbed to typhoid, yellow fever, or dozens of other tropical diseases to which he was exposed and which frequently laid low his partner, the biologist Aimé Bonpland. Alexander von Humboldt could withstand the intense tropical heat and humidity of the jungle lowlands and the bitter cold of the high Andes. He and his brother were remarkable in their differences. Wilhelm had a powerful intellectual center and a relatively limited circumference of interests. Alexander had an intellectual circumference without limit, for nothing in the universe was alien to his interests. Wilhelm, with the sibling rivalry of an older brother, might remark on his shallowness, but all who met Alexander marveled at his comprehensive knowledge of an almost unlimited range of subjects. Both brothers had in common extraordinary intelligence, a gift for and command of many languages, and diplomatic skills of the highest order. The Kings of Spain and Prussia, the Czar of Russia, and the President of the United States were all deeply impressed by Alexander von Humboldt. President Kennedy, in the 1960s at a gathering of intellectuals in the White House, remarked, “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together in the White House—with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.” He could have said, with equal truth, that there had never been so much intelligence and learning in the White House since President Jefferson gave Alexander von Humboldt the run of the place in 1804. He occupied a position in public esteem in the nineteenth century at least comparable to that of Einstein in the twentieth century. It is difficult to imagine a more complex or intriguing figure for examination and discussion than the subject of this symposium. Von Humboldt’s vitality, both mental and physical, enabled him at age 60 to accept a commission from the Czar of Russia to examine the gold mines in the Ural Mountains, an assignment which carried him over 11,000 miles to the very borders of China. And from ages 65 to 89 he wrote his five-volume treatise on the cosmos, in which he attempted to organize all known knowledge of the material universe. Ludwig van Beethoven was still writing quartets at the time that Alexander von Humboldt was born. Kant had not yet presented his inaugural dissertation, and the 8 Northeastern Naturalist Special Issue 1 Critique of Pure Reason did not appear for another twelve years. Alexander von Humboldt lived untill 1859, the year in which Darwin published On the Origin of Species, a work for which Alexander von Humboldt prepared the way. On behalf of Boston University and its Center for Ecology and Conservation Biology, I welcome you to this feast of learning.