Great Man

David Blackbourn

  • Nature’s Interpreter: The Life and Times of Alexander von Humboldt by Donald McCrory
    Lutterworth, 242 pp, £23.00, November 2010, ISBN 978 0 7188 9231 9

Alexander von Humboldt was once called the last man who knew everything, the last generalist before an age of specialisation definitively set in. His work ranged across geography, geology, mineralogy, botany, zoology, climatology, chemistry, astronomy, demography, ethnography and political economy. When he died in 1859, at the age of 89, he enjoyed cult status as a scientific hero and genius. There has been a boom in Humboldt scholarship over the last twenty years – new editions, monographs and conferences – but readers are most likely to have encountered him in Daniel Kehlmann’s novel Measuring the World (2007). His portrait of two famous scientists, Humboldt and the mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss, is a stylish comedy that gently mocks Humboldt’s belief in an ordered and interconnected universe. Donald McCrory’s new biography, pious in tone and lumpishly written, could hardly be more different.

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[*] LRB, 25 March 2010.