Alexander von Humboldt and Gotthold Eisenstein

The following is an extract from Karl Bruhns (ed, ) Life Of Alexander von Humboldt: Compiled in Commemoration of the Centenary of his Birth, Translated from the German by Jane and Caroline Lassell, Volume II (Longmans, Green, and Co, 1873), 295-305. We thank Richard Dasheiff, MD, for suggesting we add this material to our biography of Gotthold Eisenstein.

Before giving the extract, let us note that Friedrich Wilhelm Heinrich Alexander von Humboldt (14 September 1769 - 6 May 1859) was a German polymath with interests in a wide range of scientific subjects. He was famed both in Europe and the Americas and became a member of many societies worldwide. He was a friend of many of the scientists of his day.

Our extract, in which we have made a few very minor editorial changes and added some details of politicians and others mentioned in the text, begins at the top of page 295.

Alexander von Humboldt and Gotthold Eisenstein

We shall exhibit Humboldt's noble generosity, as evinced in the history of Eisenstein, in which he appears not only as a benevolent patron, but as one who laboured in secret for the good of others.

Gotthold Eisenstein, of Jewish extraction, was the son of a small tradesman of Berlin, and in 1843, when but a youth of twenty, attracted the notice of Humboldt, by a treatise in Crelle's 'Journal' exhibiting remarkable mathematical talent. Humboldt opened to him his house, and sought in every way to further his progress, not merely by his personal patronage, and the bestowment of pecuniary means, but through introductions to distinguished mathematicians. As early as May, 1844, he obtained for him from the king a yearly pension of 250 thalers; and on June 14, of the same year on the occasion of his undertaking a 'pilgrimage' to Göttingen out of veneration for Gauss, furnished him with a letter couched in terms of highest commendation. Gauss expressed himself in the warmest manner upon the remarkable gifts of Eisenstein, and shortly after his visit wrote to Humboldt: "There are many papers written by this young man to which I should gladly put my name: pray assure the king that the youth is gifted with talents such as are possessed by few in a century." These words were read by Humboldt with the greatest enthusiasm: but he thought within himself: "So much good fortune never befell me in my youth as to be thus distinguished by Friedrich Gauss." Nevertheless, "he knew how to rejoice in the happiness of others;" he repeatedly invited Eisenstein to visit him both at Berlin and Potsdam, and when on one occasion he had exceeded his very moderate pension, Humboldt induced the king to make him an advance out of his privy purse. It lies not within our province to pass any opinion as to Eisenstein's moral character, suffice it to say, that it was by many viewed with suspicion: while in Humboldt, the 'illness and melancholy depression' of his protégé excited only the keenest sympathy. In the spring of 1846, Humboldt wrote to Gauss requesting him to support a proposition he was going to make to Eichhorn [Karl Friedrich Eichhorn (1781-1854) had held the chair of law at Göttingen and was at this time Minister of Foreign Affairs] for a private grant to Eisenstein of 600 thalers. "It will be one of the greatest pleasures," he wrote, "for which I have ever had to thank you." In July, he was informed by the king that for the present at least, a grant of 500 thalers had been agreed upon, and he admonished his young friend not to lose hope of its continuance, even if the grant should be limited to a few years. "If you are but cheered by this news," he adds, "I do not doubt the continuance of your work with renewed energy. However your military drama may terminate, I will obtain your discharge from the Minister of War. You see that you are not deserted by all the world." The genuineness of the feeling dictating these words is shown in the following letter of October 29, 1846, which, as an interesting proof of delicate sympathy, we give unabridged:-
I cannot tell you, my dearest Eisenstein, how greatly I rejoice that you have so far mastered yourself as to come and see me once more, and pour out the feelings of your heart. This joy, I admit, is not unmingled with sadness. You are quite right in supposing that my affection for you is not grounded merely on the remarkable gifts with which you are endowed; my heart has been drawn to you by your gentle, amiable character, and by your proneness to melancholy, to which I would implore you, for Heaven's sake, not to give way. You must not continue to avoid all society; the idea that other people do not care for us should never be allowed to cross our minds. Pray come soon and see me, my dear Eisenstein. Notwithstanding my increasing age, I am sure that words of kind sympathy would cheer your desolate heart. Make an effort to pay me a visit once a week throughout the winter; I can always make time to see you. We must think of some means of diversion, and give distraction to your thoughts by presenting before you ideas with which you are unfamiliar, to which you are perhaps even averse (such as art treasures, the theatre, music, or the Botanic Gardens), whereby you may become incited to some light, but imperative occupation, the preparation of a new lecture. ... I notice that you have so far yielded to the gratification of your melancholy, as to be quite dead to the outer world, or, in your letter of yesterday, you would not have omitted all allusion to the prospect of escaping from military service. The occupation of lecturing would involve some regular work, would oblige you to fight against small difficulties, and would bring you into contact with young friends who would be glad to come and see you at other times than during the hours of instruction. I do not advise a sudden change of residence, for in fresh quarters you would only withdraw yourself more completely from the busy world around you. Your condition, dear Eisenstein, is only temporary - I have often met with dispositions of a similar character among my young friends - and it is only dangerous to those who have the weakness to encourage the malady, 'by giving themselves up to the luxury of grief.' Choose an early day to pay me a visit, any time between eleven and two o'clock. I should indeed rejoice were my hearty sympathy in your sorrow - increased as I know it to be by attacks from your literary friends - to afford you any relief. I shall neither scold you, nor lead you to the display of any unmanly grief, I shall but let you feel how highly I prize your friendship.
In the spring of 1847, Humboldt procured from the king by means "of an elaborate representation of Eisenstein's remarkable talent so early developed, together with his indefatigable industry in the most difficult branches of analytical investigation," a second grant of 250 thalers to be paid for two years. In the kindest way he declined every expression of thanks, and consoled his protégé for the small sum, by remarking, that through Eichhorn it might easily be raised to 300 thalers, and at the expiration of the two years receive a further extension. "By that time," he adds, "I shall long have passed the limits prescribed to human existence, but I shall rejoice at having been able to give you this small token of friendship and esteem. Heaven grant that you may long retain that modesty of disposition and capacity for usefulness for which you have ever been distinguished, and add thereto that elasticity of spirits and cheerful view of the future so necessary to intellectual employment."

In the course of the same year, Humboldt endeavoured to procure for Eisenstein a professorship at Heidelberg, seeing that "he found little employment among the mathematicians of Berlin." For this purpose he requested the youth to write out a summary of his works, and though the task was accomplished with an incredible amount of assumption, his kind interest in the young man remained undiminished. "Your letter," he writes in a tone of fatherly rebuke, "concludes with an expression which would exceedingly displease me, did I not believe that you meant it in jest. 'From the qualities of mind exhibited in these formulae I expect to become a second Newton!!' No one should speak thus of himself. Fortunately, the expression occurs in a letter to me. I shall write tomorrow to Carlsruhe, and shall certainly not speak of you as a Newton, since that would entirely destroy the effect of my letter." While the negotiations for the professorship in the duchy of Baden were pending, it was thought imprudent to seek any increase of the royal pension. On August 12, he writes to Eisenstein: "Early in April next, I shall forward to you fifty thalers from my own purse. Pray do not refuse me. Should you be fortunate enough to improve your position by an appointment in a foreign country, you will be immediately subjected to severe animadversion on account of the pension you now enjoy. It will be as well just now not to give fresh cause for censure. For this small amount trust to my assistance, and do not venture upon any step with the ministry." In the meantime he was unsuccessful in his attempts to procure for his young friend a professorship at Heidelberg.

The following lines, dated March 10, 1848, give evidence that this promise was duly fulfilled by Humboldt, who, not content with using his powerful interest in endeavouring to secure employment in a foreign country for his necessitous friend, furnished him in the most delicate manner with pecuniary assistance out of his comparatively limited means:- "The last interview I had with you, my dear Eisenstein, was so brief that I did not think it a suitable opportunity to express my fears that you might possibly be in a position of pecuniary embarrassment. One would gladly secure a man of your talent from cares of this nature. It is not in my power to offer you more than a trifling assistance, but this I do with sincere pleasure. Should you be at home when this is delivered, please acknowledge the safe arrival of the remittance, but if not send me a line to-morrow by post."

The reactionary movement succeeding to the Revolution degenerated into a 'pecuniary reaction' for all those who had become compromised by participating in the political events of that time. Jacobi and Massmann [Hans Ferdinand Massmann (1797-1874) a teacher involved in the 1848 revolution] were brought under suspicion; and Eisenstein, on the ground of political intrigue, was deprived of the additional 200 thalers by which his pension appears to have been increased at the Easter of 1848, and was restricted in future to 300 thalers, "notwithstanding the humiliating visits and letters to which Humboldt had condescended." One of these letters, addressed to Johannes Schulze [Johannes Schulze (1786-1869) director of the Prussian Departmnt of Education], we are able to insert; it is dated April 4, 1849, and was written when the pension was for a time wholly suspended. This characteristic epistle commences:-
My esteemed friend, The voice of a venerable friend which has been silent for many years is always a welcome sound. A slight indisposition, and the depression I feel at the present state of political affairs which occupy my attention incessantly, but unfortunately with no result, prevent me from coming today to see you; permit me therefore to recommend to your notice in the warmest manner the case of my friend Eisenstein, who is now in great poverty, notwithstanding his remarkable talents, which render him of extreme value in the world of science, and in attestation of this statement I unhesitatingly appeal to Gauss, Dirichlet, and Cauchy. His pension has been discontinued since the first of the month. I venture to implore your help if only out of regard for me, who am one of the oldest of those friends who can recall how much you have accomplished for intellectual freedom in momentous times of persecution. Is there a statesman now to compare with Wilhelm von Humboldt? [Wilhelm von Humboldt was Alexander von Humboldt's brother] In these days of political ferment how contracted and mean are the views of all around us, and how readily do the evil disposed gain a hearing! With the highest esteem yours, 'A von HUMBOLDT.'
With all his efforts, Humboldt could not obtain more than a grant of the smaller sum of 300 thalers for that year, from the funds of the Departments of Public Instruction and Finance. His applications had proved unavailing, not only with the Academy, but with his friends Gauss and Dirichlet.

At his recommendation, Eisenstein wrote to Gauss to offer his congratulations upon the attainment of the jubilee of his degree of Doctor; while to Dirichlet, 'confiding in his generosity,' he forwarded a letter from Gauss in praise of Eisenstein. "Your pupils are allowed to rank as equals," he adds. "Such is the way of the world, at least the intellectual world. How many have I known as children who have since surpassed me, and whose works will live when my fame has long passed away!"

The year 1850 was occupied with fresh efforts to give permanent support "to the wretched precarious existence which Eisenstein dragged on from one Easter to another." Jacobi had no sooner announced his intention of going to Vienna than Humboldt proposed that Eisenstein should succeed him in his professorship 'with a suitable salary,' and upon Jacobi's change of purpose, he made a similar application for the post of Dirksen [Enno Heeren Dirksen (1788-1850), professor of mathematics]. On the failure of both of these plans, there remained no other way but that of private assistance. The following undated note was written probably about this time: "Your letter, my dear Eisenstein, has greatly distressed me, although it but confirms the evils I had anticipated. I shall take fresh steps with the minister Ladenberg [Adalbert von Ladenberg (1798-1855)], and learn from Dirichlet, with whom rests the distribution of the funds of the Academy. But this can bring no help either for today or tomorrow. You must be in want of some immediate assistance, and therefore pray do not decline a trifle from the hand of a friend. Promise to come and see me tomorrow, Thursday, at one o'clock, to receive fifty thalers, which I hope you will accept without any feeling of compunction." Upon another occasion he writes:- "I have been thinking for some time past of the embarrassment in which you may have been placed by the dilatory procedure of the ministers. I have therefore set aside for you a hundred thalers, and implore you to feel no hesitation in accepting this trifling assistance." While negotiating with Ladenberg, Humboldt discovered that one obstacle to his plans was 'political prejudice;' "and since our constitutional freedom," he sarcastically adds, "has received but slight assistance by your cooperation, my efforts are subjected to this very unpleasant check." He arranged with Ladenberg that Eisenstein should address a courteous letter to the ministers, to which he would append some remarks in explanation of the charges brought against him, and give some assurance that his occupations were all of as 'unpolitical' a character as could be expected from the theory of numbers. By this manoeuvre, and by the judicious circulation of an opinion recently expressed by Gauss that the "talents of Eisenstein were of the highest order," Humboldt was at length enabled to preserve the little that had been gained. It was no exaggeration when he wrote to Johannes Schulze:- "In such cases I am ready to take any step, however humiliating."

The death of Jacobi in the spring of 1851 was the occasion of renewed efforts on the part of Humboldt for 'his poor friend Eisenstein.' "The effect of a long and somewhat sad experience," he wrote on February 20, to Johannes Schulze, "has been to lead me to undertake alone any service imposed by science, and if failure awaits me, to renew my efforts with undiminished ardour. Amid the deep grief occasioned me by the loss of Jacobi ... my thoughts have been turned to Eisenstein, who, with his mother' - Humboldt persistently ignored the fact that his father was still living and capable of earning a livelihood - "has in consequence of the withdrawal of the 200 thalers, but 300 thalers for his support, and is obliged to undertake instruction of the most elementary character." He then proceeds to reiterate the flattering expressions made use of by Gauss in reference to his friend, adding, that of Gauss it might indeed be said with truth 'that he was slow to praise.' Eisenstein is to be classed with "those productive geniuses like the Bernouilli in a town where minds of this order are more and more rare. I implore your aid, and confidently rely upon you. I am aware that Jacobi's salary was not drawn from the University" - it was derived from the funds of Königsberg - "but I cling to the hope that some regard will be paid to the mathematical glory to which Berlin has laid claim for the past century." While engaged in tedious negotiations with the new ministers, Raumer [Friedrich Ludwig Georg von Raumer (1781-1873), scientific historian and member of the Frankfurt Parliament], who manifested a spirit of unfriendliness, and Bodelschwingh [Ernst von Bodelschwingh-Velmede (1794-1854) Prussian politician], who was wholly ignorant of science, he was cheered in the summer of 1851 by a prospect of two openings for his friend one a professorship extraordinary at Halle, and the other the election to the Academy of Sciences of Berlin. Humboldt gave the preference to Halle, on account of the advantages attached to the title of professor.

"I will not complain, neither will I relax my exertions," he wrote to his young friend. He was distressed to see him working so hard as almost to endanger his health. In a letter dated August 9 he says:- "Should you be too unwell to go out, my dear Eisenstein, pray write to me at once, and I will come and see you on Sunday between one and three o'clock. In your distressing circumstances even a trifling assistance may prove acceptable. My means being, as you are aware, but limited, I need not feel ashamed to offer you an insignificant gift as the expression of my warm sympathy. Early next week I can give you an order on Alexander Mendelssohn [Alexander Mendelssohn (1798-1871), banker] for a hundred thalers. With your noble intellectual gifts and high character, it cannot distress you that a friend is interested in your case, and is pressing in his assistance." Again was Humboldt doomed to disappointment, both as regards Halle and Berlin; and all that could be obtained from Raumer was the temporary assistance of a hundred thalers to pay the expenses of a visit to some baths. Full of complaints, he again sought the help of Gauss and Dirichlet. To the former he wrote:- "The appointment to a professorship for which we have been so diligently seeking is still a thing in the future, owing to the icy coldness and ignorance of the present ministry in everything not connected with theology - in everything, that is to say, that has the misfortune to dispel darkness." And to Dirichlet he exclaims:- "This poor Eisenstein is dying, and he is allowed to perish for lack of bread with the most scandalous indifference. ... My remonstrances are ridiculed, and I am sent to Jericho!! ... These are strange times in which I am bidding goodbye to the world!"

In 1852 the last scene of this unfortunate tragedy was enacted. In February, Humboldt wrote to Johannes Schulze, and, while thanking him with some bitterness "for the extension of a miserable provisionary assistance without a fixed position" - the pension had been raised to 400 thalers - continued:- "This highly-gifted mathematician, whose activity has ever been on the increase, and whose fame has spread everywhere, both at home and abroad, is yet leaving this world without the public acknowledgment and recognition of scientific men implied by the dignity of a professor's chair. My complaints are I levelled against Government and public opinion; to you I would repeat my thanks for your noble readiness ever to render help and protection to the distressed." At length, in the following March, Eisenstein was unanimously elected a member of the Academy of Sciences of Berlin; the previous year he had been chosen a member of the Royal Society of Gottingen, without, as Humboldt expressly assured Schulze, the exertion of his influence. The occasion gave him an opportunity to read his young friend a moral lesson upon this proof of his personal merit, and he remarked to him:- "There is nothing more certain in this world than the harvest to be reaped from intellectual labour." His endeavours were next directed towards securing for his protege, whom he describes, in April, as "pale as death and on the high road to consumption," the honour of corresponding member of the Institute. He requested Gauss, when an opportunity presented itself, "to speak a good word for his young friend at that Capital of the West." Before this scheme could be carried out, the sad event so long expected took place. Towards the end of July, Eisenstein was seized with violent haemorrhage, and conveyed to a hospital. In writing to Dirichlet on the 28th of the month, Humboldt remarks:- "I am sending him this evening, out of my limited means, a provisionary gift of twenty gold Fredericks to help towards his nursing. I shall write a friendly and flattering letter to Herrvon Raumer, which I shall scarcely regard as an effort if I can only be of use to Eisenstein." A sojourn of a year in Sicily was recommended by the medical men as indispensable for the recovery of their patient. "It may possibly be all in vain," laments Humboldt in a letter to Johannes Schulze of August 3, while begging for further assistance, but it is worth while to make the effort for one whom Gauss describes as a mathematical genius, such as appear only once or twice in a century. In him was exhibited an active mind in a sickly body, a wonderful creative faculty with a life passed wholly amid sorrow." Upon his return from a summer excursion with the king, Humboldt's "first thought was naturally directed to Eisenstein." He himself wrote to the Minister of Finance, and to Dirichlet he announced that "hitherto things have gone on in their natural course, but now at length the king must be induced to interfere. Alexander Mendelssohn has, in the frankest and most obliging manner, offered me a hundred thalers, should the journey be carried out. Do not mention this to Eisenstein; he would only expend the money here in an unnecessary manner, and three weeks ago, before I left home, I paid him a similar sum out of my own means." In the meantime he received a consolatory letter from Johannes Schulze, and was able to acknowledge his kindness, on September 1, in the following delighted strain:- "How can I find words, my dear friend, to express to you my renewed thanks? I have just received from the Minister of Finance an autograph letter, couched in the most friendly terms, dated September 7, informing me that on the 27th, therefore before receiving my letter, he had given his sanction to a grant of 500 thalers to Dr Eisenstein. As soon as I am sufficiently recovered I hope to wait upon the minister, to express in person my heartiest thanks. If only the young man can be saved!"

The sad tragedy was inevitable; in less than six weeks Eisenstein was no more. To the bereaved father Humboldt wrote on October 11:- "I have no words to express the sorrow I am experiencing. Both you and your dear wife are aware how sincerely I was attached to your highly-gifted son, who has been for years both to yourselves and to me an equal object of care. ... I have written this evening to Herr von Bodelschwingh, the Minister of Finance, requesting that the sum destined for the living may be devoted to the exigences of the dead, and that the 500 thalers may be paid over to you to meet the expenses of the funeral, the outlay involved by his election, and the debts which had been set on one side in arranging for the cost of the journey. ... In furnishing your son with so excellent an education, in your limited circumstances, you have accomplished no mean service to your generation." But new difficulties were awaiting Humboldt. In writing shortly afterwards to Böckh [August Böckh (1785-1867) professor of classics at Heidelberg and secretary of the Berlin Academy of Sciences] he says:- "So at last I have buried Eisenstein, to whom, in spite of the humiliations to which for five years I have subjected myself, the title of Professor was never accorded, to whom the pension granted by the king in 1846 was never fully restored, and from whose necessitous family, who lose in him the sixth son of great promise, there is now a wish to withhold the miserable sum destined for the proposed journey. Such a ministry in the centre of intellectual life fills me with shame and disgust." Notwithstanding three importunate letters and two visits from Humboldt, and the intercession of Costenoble [Carl Heinrich August Costenoble (1803-1881) Chief Secretary of the Treasury and Privy Councillor] and Olfers [Ignaz vov Olfers (1793-1871) General Director of the Royal Museums in Berlin], Bodelschwingh could not be induced to accord more than 300 thalers, but "the king, being anxious to do honour to the memory of the man who, though of distinguished fame, had been in life the object of no friendly treatment by the Minister for Public Instruction," gave orders for the payment of the entire sum. On December 4, Humboldt wrote to the father of his poor friend:- "With these glad tidings pray receive the warmest assurance of the sincere esteem which you and your dear family have inspired in all who have had the privilege of your acquaintance." To Gauss he writes thanking him "in the name of humanity" - one thinks one hears Sarastro speak for his beautiful letter of condolence, in which he exhibits the noble example of grand intellectual powers united to the tenderest and most affectionate feeling.

Truly a sad history, but one in every way honourable to Humboldt. As Gauss remarks in his touching letter of consolation to the father of Eisenstein:- "One of the most beautiful jewels in Humboldt's crown is the zeal with which he lends his assistance and encouragement to genius." The self-denial and devotion he displayed in the fulfilment of this sacred duty are vividly portrayed in this narrative, which we have thought it desirable on this account to give in detail. The grandest feature to be remarked, however, is that the history of Eisenstein is only one out of many instances that might be adduced, commencing even from the time of his settlement at Paris.

Last Updated March 2022