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Pioneers of scientific research – The brothers Schlagintweit

Humboldt’s extensive expeditions to South America were groundbreaking at the time. Adolph Schlagintweit was keen to emulate his great idol and discover the landscapes of the Indian subcontinent. He paid for his audacity with his life, being executed on Russian territory on the way home. However, the results of his investigations, which he collected on extended journeys through
India accompanied by his brothers, were considered revolutionary.

Patron and role model: Alexander von Humboldt

And it was he who promoted the Schlagintweit brothers’ journey to India. They met their later patron for the first time in Berlin in 1849, but Humboldt already knew and admired the way the brothers from Munich went about their work. Like Humboldt, they pursued a research vision that interlinked the geography, geology and ethnology of a given region. Humboldt used his contacts, introduced the brothers into Prussian and Bavarian court society and managed to secure them an assignment from the British East India Company to travel to South Asia. One of the aims of the expedition was to investigate whether there really were glaciers in the Himalayas, which at the time was just a rumour – as was the existence of Mount Everest.

Momentous expedition


Together with their brother Robert, Adolph and Hermann set off for India in 1854. They explored the Indian subcontinent separately, spending years collecting data on geography, geology and the cultures of the peoples. Three years after setting off for Bombay, Hermann and Robert returned to Berlin, but Adolph was still driven by his spirit of adventure and embarked on a dangerous journey through Central Asia and Russia. He was attacked by the horsemen of a tribal chief and brought to their leader who was in the process of revolting against China. They thought Adolph was a Chinese spy and executed him.

Immortal work on India

After Robert's, Adolph's and Hermann's death, their much younger brother Emil published the material they had collected on their trip to India. It was even more substantial than everything Alexander von Humboldt had gathered together in South America. By the end of their journey between Kerala, Calcutta and the Himalayas they had covered no less than 30,000 kilometres, filled 46 volumes with notes, produced almost 800 sketches of the landscape and put together a collection of geological, ethnographic and botanical objects numbering just short of 15,000 items.

Summary of an essay by former Humboldt Fellow Dr. Jutta Jain-Neubauer

Read the entire essay in the community!

May 2011

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