Faces of Berlin: Alexander von Humboldt

As part of our redesign in 2014, the hotel’s architect Jan Kleihues, designed the ‘Faces of Berlin’. This concept celebrates some of Berlin’s most beloved personalities in feature walls through the hotel and every month we present the background on some of these personalities.

Throughout 2015 we have profiled all of the notable figures featured in the hotel and it has been wonderful to be able to share their stories and pay tribute to them in this way through our blog. For our final ‘Faces of Berlin feature’ we bring you one of Berlin’s greatest and most respected minds even still today – Alexander von Humboldt.


Born in Prussian Berlin in September 1769, he grew from being an exceptionally curious child to become one of the greatest natural scientists in history. His curiosity encompassed botany, geography, geology and philosophy and could only be satisfied through extensive travels, explorations and research. He was a prolific writer and therefore documented most of his activities, so that in time, many of his discoveries revolutionised history and are still relevant and significant in their respective fields today.

Alexander von Humboldt grew up in Berlin but studied in Frankfurt an der Oder for university, dabbling in economics and engineering before settling on Botany. His lust for more intriguing varieties of plant samples fuelled his desire for travel and after further studies in Geology in Göttingen, he joined the internationally renowned School of Mines in Saxony. He studied intensively and it was here that he developed and refined his skills. He worked within the mining industry for a time but knew instinctively that his future was in global scientific research. He resigned and spent 2 years preparing for an expedition to South America, and in 1799 set sail from Marseille to do just that. Financed by his mother’s inheritance, he spent 5 years travelling the length and breadth of it, taking in mountains, jungles, rivers, and scrublands under the most challenging of conditions, all in the name of exploration and discovery. This trip was considered to be the ‘scientific’ discovery of South America.

Humboldt Ship © Wikicommons

Replica of Humboldt’s ship © wikicommons

His plant samples obtained from across the world formed the foundation of of contemporary botanical science and his geographic recordings and mappings were some of the first of their kind. One of the greatest findings resulted from his measurements of the earth’s geomagnetic field and the subsequent discovery of the earth’s magnetic equator. This in combination with his revelations about plate tectonics revolutionised human understanding of the planet.

Geography in tropical lands AvH© wikimedia

One of Humboldt’s drawings of geography in tropical lands © wikimedia

Humboldt stayed active throughout his lifetime and spent the last 3 decades of it working on his greatest achievement – the 5 volume scientific work ‘Kosmos‘, that summarised all of his life’s works and findings. It explores the nature and structure of the universe through his voice and is told in an accessible way that clearly reveals his excitement at the pure joy of discovery he got to experience throughout his lifetime. Kosmos was translated into most European languages and Humboldt died in Berlin in 1859 at the age of 90 while working on the 5th edition.

Humboldt © Wikipedia

Alexander von Humboldt statue in front of Humboldt University Berlin

Alexander von Humboldt is one of the most famous Germans in the world and is celebrated as such in Berlin through various buildings, statues, institutions and foundations in his name. One of Europe’s greatest academic institutions – the Humboldt University – took his name and the Humboldt Foundation continues his commitment to study and exploration through promoting academic engagement and cooperation. The enormous project that is the Berlin Palace – currently being constructed in the heart of the city – will be the home of the Humboldt Forum – an innovative cultural project that pays tribute to his life’s work through encouraging a global dialogue and a connection of cultures through art, science and philosophy.

Reception Faces

Faces of Berlin in the hotel reception


You can read more about the stars of our ‘Faces in Berlin’ series by following these links. Actress and chanteuse Marlene Dietrich, former heavyweight champion of the world Max Schmeling. Playwright, poet and theatre director Bertolt Brecht, humble taxi driver ‘Iron Gustav’ and his extraordinary journey from Berlin to Paris and back. Berlin’s adorable unofficial mascot – the polar bear Knut, German actress, singer and writer Hildegard Knef. The man considered to be one of the fathers of modern architecture – Walter Gropius, internationally renowned ballet teacher, choreographer and dancer, Tatjana Gsovsky and German fashion photographer Yva.

Melinda Barlow is an Australian freelance writer and editor, based in Berlin since 2012. Melinda works with print and online media and has a natural curiosity that informs her work. She is passionate about travel and great content. She loves to write most about the world, its people and why we all do what we do.