Lotte Kellner is a lecturer in Physics at the Imperial College of the University of London. She has found in England her second home. It is her intention with this book to acquaint those who speak English with Alexander von Humboldt. This should be easy in the United States as even today Humboldt is well known and after all Humboldt was a great admirer of the United States since from the political point of view—although he was personally cold—he saw the United States as a “dynamic Cartesian whirl.” With regard to England, even though he valued her many admirable traits he had many reservations, and as to love for England he placed her after France. And indeed the English have not always understood Humboldt and have not accepted his opinions. It must be stated that hate and contempt have never existed on either side.

I welcome the appearance of the book by Lotte Kellner because the English biography published in 1955 called The Life and Times of Alexander von Humboldt by Helmut de Terras is largely a romantic psychological presentation. It rotates around an unknown homosexuality of Humboldt, and the Kellner book can help erase this impression. But I think that there is still the need to translate Humboldt’s works into English to avoid any mistakes. The Kellner book has such errors. Humboldt’s mother was not of the nobility (p. 5); Humboldt did not meet George Foster (who is much misunderstood) in Gottingen (p. 12f); but Humboldt received in Hamburg from Johann Georg Busch and Christoph Daniel Ebeling important suggestions and there he regularly undertook studies which the author totally ignores (p. 15). This reviewer does not want to make a list of errors. What is more important is the fact that the volume of geography, that from the traveling point of view cannot be ignored (it is basic for the research trips to America and Russia), has been neglected in favor of geomagnetic discussions with which the author, as a physicist, is more at home. In the end, this book is based on the antiquated Karl Bruhn biography: Alexander von Humboldt, Eine wissenschaftliche biographic, 3 vols., Leipzig, 1872 (see pp. 238-241). It is this that makes the Kellner book weak. In sum, the newest literature has not been used. The discussion of geomagnetism and the use of some English sources are noteworthy, but from an overall point of view take up too much space.

Author notes


This review was translated by Charles W. Arnade