Humboldt was born in Berlin in the Margraviate of Brandenburg. His father, Alexander George von Humboldt, was a major in the Prussian Army and belonged to a prominent Pomeranian family and was rewarded for his services during the Seven Years' War with the post of Royal Chamberlain. He married Maria Elizabeth von Colomb in 1766, the widow of Baron von Holwede, and they had two sons. The money of Baron von Holwede, left to his former wife, was instrumental in the funding of Alexander's explorations, contributing more than 70% of Alexander's monetary income.[citation needed]

Due to his penchant for collecting and labeling plants, shells, and insects he received the playful title of "the little apothecary". His father died in 1779, after which his mother took care of his education. Destined for a political career, he studied finance during six months at the University of Frankfurt (Oder); and a year later, on April 25, 1789, he matriculated at Göttingen, then eminent for the lectures of C. G. Heyne and J. F. Blumenbach. His vast and varied interests were by this time fully developed, and during a vacation in 1789, he made a scientific excursion up the Rhine, and produced the treatise Mineralogische Beobachtungen über einige Basalte am Rhein (Brunswick, 1790).

Humboldt's passion for travel was confirmed by friendships formed at Göttingen with Georg Forster, Heyne's son-in-law, the distinguished companion of Captain James Cook on his second voyage. Henceforth his studies and combination of personal talents became to the purpose of preparing himself for a distinctive calling as a scientific explorer. With this view he studied commerce and foreign languages at Hamburg, geology at Technische Universität Bergakademie Freiberg under A. G. Werner, anatomy at Jena under J. C. Loder, and astronomy and the use of scientific instruments under F. X. von Zach and J. G. Köhler. His researches into the vegetation of the mines of Freiberg led to the publication, in 1793, of his Florae Fribergensis Specimen; and the results of a prolonged course of experiments on the phenomena of muscular irritability, then recently discovered by Luigi Galvani, were contained in his Versuche über die gereizte Muskel- und Nervenfaser (Berlin, 1797), enriched in the French translation with notes by Blumenbach.

A portrait of Humboldt by Friedrich Georg Weitsch, 1806

[edit] Travels and work in Europe

In 1794 Humboldt was admitted to the intimacy of the famous Weimar coterie, and contributed (June 7, 1795) to Schiller's new periodical, Die Horen, a philosophical allegory entitled Die Lebenskraft, oder der rhodische Genius. In the summer of 1790 he paid a short visit to England in company with Forster. In 1792 and 1797 he was in Vienna; in 1795 he made a geological and botanical tour through Switzerland and Italy. He had obtained in the meantime official employment: appointed assessor of mines at Berlin, February 29, 1792. Although this service to the state was regarded by him as only an apprenticeship to the service of science, he fulfilled its duties with such conspicuous ability that not only did he rise rapidly to the highest post in his department, but he was also entrusted with several important diplomatic missions. The death of his mother, on November 19, 1796, set him free to follow the bent of his genius, and severing his official connections, he waited for an opportunity to fulfil his long-cherished dream of travel.

 
 
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