Alexander von Humboldt’s secretary

From Thirty Treasures, Thirty Years: Stories from the Musselman Library Collection, issued in 2011 to mark the anniversary of the iconic campus building, edited by Robin Wagner P’10 and Sunni DeNicola

Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) undoubtedly showered many true treasures upon Western learning and society. His contributions to fields as diverse as geography, geology, cartography, botany, climatology, and anthropology are almost universally acknowledged within the development of European and American studies and culture. Forgetting perhaps himself, Charles Darwin once described Humboldt as “the greatest traveling scientist who ever lived.” SecretaryAnd Thomas Jefferson remarked that Humboldt was “the most important scientist” he had met. Humboldt was one of the great intellectual and Enlightenment figures of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

But it is a particular treasure that unites the great Humboldt to Gettysburg  College. His secretary, an elegant and now restored piece, currently stands in the Special Collections Reading Room. It is part of the John Henry Wilbrandt Stuckenberg collection that came to the College in the early 20th century. Stuckenberg had acquired it, along with a large desk also owned by Humboldt, in 1885. The former made sure to have his purchases authenticated and traced them back to the explorer-writer himself.

Standing approximately six feet tall and capped by two ornamental lions, Humboldt’s secretary is an impressive and handsome reminder of a long and fruitful intellectual career. In many ways, he was the near perfect embodiment of what we today call the liberal arts ideal. He was curious, engaged, cosmopolitan, intelligent, and persistent. Each of these traits factored into his five-year sojourn to the Americas, during which he visited Venezuela, Brazil, Cuba, Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru, Mexico, and the eastern United States, where he met Jefferson.

Humboldt’s “study abroad” provided the material for nearly three decades of writing. His books on the Americas fill 30 volumes. SimÓn Bolivár once commented that Humboldt was the “true discoverer” of the Western Hemisphere. At age 60, he embarked on another journey, this time across Russia and Siberia to Mongolia. A lifelong learner and intellectual, Humboldt wrote a further three volumes about his experiences in Asia. For the rest of his life, he dedicated himself to his masterpiece, Cosmos, a five-volume encyclopedia in which he attempted to pursue an Enlightenment goal: the systematic study and presentation of all natural and human phenomena.

It is easy to imagine that Humboldt carried out much of this work around the desk and at the secretary now part of Gettysburg College’s Special Collections. Books, maps, charts, and correspondence were produced in abundance with their sturdy help.

Students, alumni, and faculty should take a glance at the secretary and draw inspiration for their own academic or intellectual work at the College or beyond. After all, Humboldt helped create, or added significantly to, many of the fields we study.  

— by history Prof. William Bowman, who teaches world, modern European, and sports history. His most recent book is Imperialism in the Modern World.

Founded in 1832, Gettysburg College is a highly selective four-year residential college of liberal arts and sciences with a strong academic tradition. Alumni include Rhodes Scholars, a Nobel laureate, and other distinguished scholars. The college enrolls 2,600 undergraduate students and is located on a 200-acre campus adjacent to the Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania.

Posted: Sun, 2 Sep 2012


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