Two hundred years ago the remarkable Dr. David Livingstone was born in the small village of Blantyre, Scotland.

His family was poor, and he started work in a cotton mill at the age of 10. His life as a laborer did not prevent him from the Herculean task (for a poor man) of pursuing the study of medicine, and at the age of 23 he entered Anderson College in Glasgow.

Livingstone was from a deeply religious family, but he rejected the antagonism growing between Science and Religion. He believed in a Christian theology that was dedicated to a scientific understanding of nature.

Starting in 1840 he worked in and explored Africa as a missionary and a scientist. His contributions to medicine, geography, and natural history were, and still are, significant. His experiences led him to become a leading anti-slavery crusader. His phrase describing the East African slave trade, “this open sore of the world,” still condemns the slave trade of today.

His life is not without contradictions, however. His efforts to expand commerce in Africa leave his legacy open to criticism that he helped in the European exploitation of that continent. Current research reveals a muddy record of poor organizational skills. His lack of funding led him to an unfortunate over-reliance on the same slave-traders he condemned. Yet by the end of his life he had travelled farther on foot than most people today travel on airplanes, in the process surmounting formidable challenges and demonstrating great fortitude (including having his shoulder ripped apart by the jaws of a lion).

As an explorer famous in his own time, his work was noted in the pages of Scientific American. On the occasion of Dr. David Livingstone’s 200th birthday it is fitting to see the admiration for his work in contemporary accounts.


From 1841 to 1856 he lived, worked, and traversed Southern Africa. At the age of 40 he returned to England, and wrote and lectured on his work:

Dr. Livingstone Discoveries in Africa.

The celebrated traveler, Dr. Livingstone, has been lecturing since his return to England, as we learn by recent news. His adventures have been of the most dangerous and thrilling character. He traced by him self the course of the great river Zambesi, in Eastern Africa, extending two thousand miles.

This immense stream, whose discovery is the great fruit of the journey, is in itself an enigma without parallel. But a small portion of its waters reach the seacoast. Like the Abyssinian Nile, it falls through a basaltic cleft, near the middle of its course, which reduces its breadth from 1000 to 20 yards. Above these falls it spreads out periodically into a great sea, filling hundreds of lateral channels; below it is a stream of a totally different character. Its mouths seem to be closing. The southernmost was navigable when the Portuguese first arrived in the country, 300 years ago, but it has long since ceased to 'be practicable.

During his unprecedented march, alone among savages, to whom a white face was a miracle, Dr. Livingstone was compelled to struggle through indescribable hardships. The hostility of the natives he conquered by his intimate knowledge of their character and the Bechuana tongue, to which theirs is related. He waded rivers and slept in the sponge and ooze of marshes, being often so drenched as to be compelled to tum his armpit into a watch pocket. Lions were numerous, being worshiped by many of the tribes as the receptacles of the departed souls of their chiefs; however, he thinks the fear of African wild beasts greater in England than in Africa. He has memoranda of the latitudes and longitudes of a multitude of cities, towns, rivers, and mountains, which will go far to fill up the "unknown regions " in our atlases.

Toward the interior he found the country more fertile and more populous. The natives worshiped idols, believed in transmigrated existence after death, and performed religious ceremonies in groves and woods. They were less ferocious and suspicious than the seaboard tribes, had a tradition of the Deluge, and more settled governments. Some of them practiced inoculation and used quinine, and all were eager for trade. Their language was sweet and expressive. On the arid plateau of the interior, watermelons supplied the place of water for some months of the year, as they do on the plains of Hungary in summer. A Quaker tribe, on the river Zanga, never fight, never have consumption, scrofula, hydrophobia, cholera, smallpox, or measles.

Dr. Livingstone is nearly forty years old. His face is furrowed by hardships and thirsty fevers, and black with exposure to a burning sun. His left arm is crushed and rendered nearly helpless from the embrace of a lion.

Dr. Livingstone's discoveries, in their character and commercial value, have been declared by Sir Roderic Murchison to be superior to any since the discovery of the Cape of Good Hope by Vasco de Gama. But greater than any commercial value is the lesson which they teach—that all obstacles yield to a resolute man.

[Scientific American, January 24, 1857]


In 1858 he resigned from the London Missionary Society, was elected as a Fellow into the pre-eminent scientific society of the day, the Royal Society, and left again on an expedition to Africa.

This time he had more equipment:

Dr. Livingstone's New African Expedition

It has been announced, that the vessel which has recently sailed with the now celebrated Dr. Livingstone for the southeast coast of Africa, has on board a peculiar steamboat, provided by the British Government, to enable the veteran traveler to prosecute his investigation of the Zambesi River. This small steamer or launch has been built at Birkenhead, opposite Liverpool, by John Laird, and the material of which it is principally constructed is the "homogeneous metal," noticed previously in SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN. The plates for the hull of this steamer will be as strong as those of common iron double the thickness. For convenience of transport, it has been built in three sections. The center section contains the boiler and a single horizontal high-pressure engine of 12- horse power, and the two end sections are fitted up for the accommodations of the persons onboard the boat. Great results are expected from this expedition.

[Scientific American, March 13, 1858]

The expedition also had some commercial goals:

The late expedition fitted out with the famous Dr. Livingstone as its chief, has for one of its main objects the encouragement of cotton cultivation in Africa. It is intended to establish various trading stations, and induce the natives to practice agriculture, and the raising of useful native products for foreign export. There are on that continent, it is asserted, tracts of country thousands of miles in extent, on which the best qualities of short staple could be raised and sold at a cost far below American cotton. The attempt, therefore, is to be made to carry the war against American King Cotton into Africa; with what success the future alone can truly determine.

[Scientific American, May 8, 1858]


In 1860 Livingstone sent a progress report back to the Royal Society:

Latest Discoveries in Africa

A letter was read before the American Geographical and Statistical Society, on the 5th of this month, addressed to that body by the celebrated African traveler, Dr. Livingstone, under date of "Tette, Zambesi, Feb. 22, 1859," in which he gives some interesting particulars of his latest discoveries. Referring to his explorations of the Zambesi river, he says:

"We are now quite sure now, that, during at least eight months of each year, a steamer of four or five feet depth of draught could trade without embarrassment. The reason why so little has been known about the Zambesi may have been the branching in the stormy promontory, by which it was hidden from navigators. And these easy-chair geographers, dreaming over the geography of Ptolemy, actually put down the Zambesi as flowing into the sea at Quilimane, which in his days it probably did, though not a drop of Zambesi water in ordinary circumstances reaches that port. Had some branch of the Anglo-Americans planted their footsteps on its banks, the world would have known all about it long ago; and no one would have ventured to play with the river as has been done, making it lose itself and flow under the Kalahari desert."

Dr. Livingstone and his party ascended a branch of this river, the "Shire," and he gives some account of the people and things along its banks, thus:

"So far as we can ascertain, this river has never been explored by Europeans before. One part of the luxuriant valley of the Shire is marshy and abounding in lagoons, in which grow great quantities of the lotus plant. The people were busy collecting the tubers, which when boiled or roasted, resembled chestnuts. They are thus real Lotophagi, such as are mentioned by Herodotus. Another part of the valley abounded in elephants. Herd upon herd appeared as far as the eye could reach; and noble animals they were. "We sometimes chased them in our little steamer; for the Shire branches off occasionally, and forms islands.

The upper part of the valley is well peopled, and many of the hills are cultivated high up. But never having seen Europeans before, they looked on us with great suspicion. They watched us constantly, well armed with bows and poisoned arrows, ready to repel any attack, but no incivility was offered when we landed, nor were our wooding parties molested. The greatest coward fires first; so, thinking we had as much pluck as they, we did not lift a gun, though we saw them ever-ready to fire, or rather shoot. We did nothing to make us ashamed to return, and if we have their confidence, we may go further. They had abundance of provisions and sold them at a cheap rate; also cotton of two kinds—one indigenous, short in the staple, but very strong and woolly to the feeling—the other very fine and long in the staple. We brought in number of specimens of their spindles and yam, and, as it was quite equal to American upland cotton, did not offer them any American seed. The cotton plant is met with everywhere, and though burned down annually, springs up again as fresh and strong us ever. They grow sugar cane too, bananas, manioc, etc. The men are said by the Portuguese to be very intelligent, but very wild. The women wear the lip ornament, which is a ring, about four inches in circumference, and nearly a quarter of an inch thick, passing through a hole in the lower lip, which is thus made to protrude frightfully. I am thus particular, [the doctor is somewhat waggish], in case our own ladies, who show a noble perseverance when fashion dictates, may wish to adopt lip ornaments."

Of the climate, and the health of the party, Dr. Livingstone, in conclusion, writes as follows:

“We were warned by the fate of the Niger expedition not to delay among the mangrove swamps of the delta-the very hot-beds of fever. We accordingly made all haste away, and we took daily a quantity of quinine. The period of the year which I selected, though not the most favorable for navigation, was the most so for health, and thank God our precautions were successful. The Kroomen [African sailors recruited into the British Navy], from Sierra Leone have had more of it than we, until a short time ago, when it was the most unhealthy season of the year even to the natives. Three of us have had touches of the complaint, but are all now quite well. I have never had a day's illness since my return. We find, too, that, so far from Europeans being unable to work in a hot climate, it is the want of work that kills them. The Portuguese all know that so long as they are moving about, they enjoy good health but let them settle down, and smoke, or drink brandy, fever follows and the blame is all put on the climate."

This letter was written in acknowledgment of the author's election as a corresponding member of the American Geographical and Statistical Society.

[Scientific American, January 21, 1860]


The public interest in the Scottish missionary and scientist grew after he “disappeared” from (European) view, and he was tracked down by journalist Henry Morton Stanley of the New York Herald in November 1871. The famous greeting may or may not have been uttered, but the news that the journalist brought back was eagerly devoured by the public of the day. Scientific American reported on one of Stanley’s lectures:

Meeting of the British Association—Address by a New York Herald Reporter—Livingstone in Africa

The British Association met this year at Brighton, on August 14, 1872, on the next day Dr. Carpenter, the newly elected President, delivered his inaugural oration. But the great feature of a following meeting was the address of Mr. Henry M. Stanley, a correspondent of the New York Herald, who has suddenly achieved fame, if not fortune, by a successful adventure in Africa in search of the famous traveller, Dr. Livingstone. The Doctor had not been heard from for nearly three years, and much anxiety was felt in England in regard to his safety. The public interest in his health reached such a pitch that the Government finally organized an expedition for a search after the missing explorer, while a voluntary contribution for supplies and other assistance, amounting to some $25,000 was gathered. The starting point for these relief expeditions was Zanzibar, a well-known settlement and steam packet post on the east coast of Africa, six degrees south of the equator. On this parallel, the width of the African continent from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic is only about eighteen hundred miles. The headquarters of Livingstone were known to be somewhere in the vicinity of a collection of native huts, designated as Ujiji, on the banks of a great lake, discovered by previous travellers, and called Lake Tanganyika. The route from Zanzibar to Ujiji is well known, distance about seven hundred miles, the first four hundred of which are very difficult to pass on account of the marshy nature of the ground and the extreme warmth of the climate.

The newspaper discussion, preparations and movements connected with the sending of the relief expedition excited much interest in Great Britain, and it occurred to Mr. James Gordon Bennett, proprietor of the New York Herald, who was in England at this time, that it would not be a bad idea to dispatch one of his reporters to Zanzibar, and if possible send him on ahead of the relief party to interview Dr. Livingstone, and bring back news of the celebrated traveller in advance of other newspapers. No sooner thought of than done. A reporter was selected in the person of a young American rover, named Henry M. Stanley, who at once started for Zanzibar, where he engaged guides and men to accompany him, and then pushed on through the forest for Ujiji, which place they reached after some difficulties, and here they found Dr. Livingstone, waiting for long expected supplies.

The reporter was enabled to relieve the Doctor's immediate necessities; and after procuring from him letters giving an outline of his discoveries, with messages for friends at home, the enterprising Stanley posted back to the sea coast, then on to England with the great news, first directing further supplies to be sent from Zanzibar to Dr. Livingstone, who will proceed with his explorations. Stanley's recent arrival in England produced, as might have been expected, an immense sensation. His pluck in walking six hundred miles through the woods and mires, under a broiling sun, to interview Livingstone, and the enterprise of the New York Herald in sending him, have formed the subject of many columns of laudation in the various British papers.

At the meeting of the British Association, Mr. Stanley, by special invitation, gave an account of his African march before a very large and distinguished audience, composed of the members of the Association and their invited guests, among whom the nobility were strongly represented. The Ex-Emperor Napoleon, Eugenie and son were among the most interested auditors.

In the discussion which followed, some of the geographers pointed out the improbability of certain deductions made by Livingstone in respect to the source of the Nile, while other places, reported by Stanley as the discoveries of Livingstone, were declared to have been visited by other travellers, among them Dr. Schweinfurth, the celebrated German savant. One of the reports says that Stanley "did not content himself with refuting Dr. Beke or Sir Henry Rawlinson; he abused them in a rhetorical way for differing from his friend Dr. Livingstone. Every one was glad to see the brave and absent and ancient explorer have so stout a champion present at the meeting. The Doctor must have charmed and inspired Stanley, or Stanley, with the generous heroism of youth and sympathy for common danger and suffering, resolutely liked the Doctor, and took his part against all adversaries and critics. Sometimes he answered by a dramatic grimace alone, and anon by a thundering denunciation of those who sat at home and criticized maps to contradict those who, by travel and peril and patience, have penetrated the dangerous lands and seen for themselves. When he referred to Schweinfurth, he exclaimed, 'I never heard the name of that German Doctor before. Ladies and gentlemen, there never was an Englishman who discovered anything, lake or land, river or mountain, or went anywhere, but immediately arises some red haired German and says he has been there before.' This thrust at the Germans delighted the Imperial party beyond measure. The Emperor shook with merriment. The Empress contrived to understand it, and for the first time was convulsed with laughter, in which her son also joined."

From the letters brought home by Stanley from Dr. Livingstone, it appears that he has been principally engaged during the past three years in tracing out the watershed of the Nile, and thinks that he has now nearly finished the business. He has discovered some very remarkable regions, full of great fountains, streams, and lakes. "I have ascertained," he says, "that the watershed of the Nile is a broad upland, between 10° and 12° south latitude, and from 4,000 to 5,000 feet above the level of the sea. Mountains stand on it at various points, which, though not apparently very high, are between 6,000 and 7,000 feet of actual altitude. The watershed is over 700 miles in length from east to west. The springs that rise on it are almost innumerable."

[Scientific American, September 11, 1872]


Livingstone had been in poor health in the last four years of his life, and he finally succumbed in May 1873. His heart was buried in the village where he died, and his body was brought overland to the coast by two of his servants and then by ship to England. Scientific American published this obituary:

The Death of Dr. Livingstone

Information has recently reached England of the decease of Dr. Livingstone, the celebrated African explorer, during June last. It seems that, in journeying over a partially submerged country, he was obliged to wade some four days through quite deep water. The exposure brought on a severe attack of dysentery, of which he fell the victim.

David Livingstone was born near Glasgow, Scotland, in the year 1815, and at the age of twenty-five became one of the agents of the London Missionary Society in Southern Africa. During the sixteen years of his residence in that country, he traversed the region from the Cape of Good Hope to 10 degrees south latitude, and then followed the Zambesi River to its mouth, thus completing a journey of over 11,000 miles. Returning to England, he organized a small expedition, which set out in 1858, and returned in 1863, after further exploring the above mentioned country. In 1868 Dr. Livingstone again went back to Africa, and again entered a region totally unknown to civilization. Until found by the Herald reporter Stanley, some two years ago, little was heard from him, and numerous rumors of his death were extensively circulated. After Stanley's departure, he continued his exploration, but no news of him has been received until the present time, when the British officials at Zanzibar transmit the intelligence of his death.

It would be difficult to describe the labors of this most indefatigable of travelers in the space here at our disposal. In his death geographical science loses one of its most persevering students. It may be truly said that for a blank spot on the map of Africa—for a region unknown save through tradition—he has substituted a country rich, fertile and productive, which, before many years, will exercise no small effect upon the commerce of the world. His labors toward the suppression of the slave trade are well known, and have tended largely to limit the spread and decrease the barbarities of that infamous traffic. He resolutely refused to discontinue his work until he should believe it complete; and so, isolating himself from home and his own race for nearly a quarter of a century, he has existed among the savages, enduring privations without number. Though to many his toil may appear fruitless, and the years of patient search, barren in directly useful results, the world is nevertheless the gainer by the example of "one who loved his fellow men," who, single hearted in his devotion, died as he had lived, a martyr to science.

[Scientific American, February 14, 1874]


In an odd codicil to his death, and in homage to his life’s work, two decades after the death of Livingstone, Scientific American reported on the tree in Chitambo village, in what is now Zambia, under which Livingstone’s heart was buried.

Livingstone's Grave at Old Chitambo.

Mr. Poulett Weatherley, an Englishman who has been for several years traveling in a leisurely manner in Central Africa, has recently explored Lake Bangweolo, and afterward visited Old Chitambo, where Livingstone's heart was buried. In a letter written to a friend at Zomba and published in the British Central Africa Gazette, Mr. Weather ley says: "I send you some leaves from a long way off—i.e., Livingstone's tree at Old Chitambo. After circumnavigating the lake I thought it a pity to leave the district without seeing Chitambo, so I trudged around the south of Bangweolo to the spot, crossing the Luapula about ten miles below Katapa, at a place called Kafufwe, where Glave crossed. From that point to the Mpundu tree I traveled his track. Neither the chief Chitambo nor the village of that name of Livingstone's day now exists. Chitambo, the late chief, lies on the south side of and under the same tree as Livingstone's heart, which is buried to the north of it. The village has been removed about ten miles to the west. The solitude of the spot is rather depressing, and I was rather glad to get away. The idea that the whole country to the south of the lake is nothing but a vast swamp is incorrect. There is certainly plenty of swamp, but also miles and miles of beautifully wooded country. Game there is but little of, as far as antelopes are concerned, the rinderpest having killed off nearly all. Elephants come out of the swamp during the rains, but when they come I hope to be elsewhere. I commence my return journey, via Mshota's, the day after to-morrow. I have taken photographs of the tree at Old Chitambo and one of the inscription.

It is a thousand pities that some attempt is not made by people at home, who are interested in Livingstone and his work in Africa, to prevent the exact spot where he died from being hopelessly lost sight of, as it will be in a very few years. When the poor old Mpundu tree falls through fire and decay—it is now fast becoming a mere shell—after having kept guard so faithfully all these years—a quarter of a century now—there is nothing to replace it. Nothing could possibly be more appropriate than the simple rugged tree standing over the spot—no monument could be more inexpressibly solemn—but unfortunately it cannot last forever. The Mpundu must go, and with it, unless prompt steps be taken, goes the knowledge of the site of Livingstone's last halting place. To me his grave in the Abbey is nothing to the Mpundu tree at Old Chitambo."

[Scientific American, February 14, 1874]

Fishes from Lake Tanganyika
From the article on Commander Verney Lovett Cameron’s expedition, put together by the Royal Geographical Society to bring assistance to Dr. David Livingstone.
Scientific American Supplement, May 19, 1877

Hairstyles and headdresses of men of Manyuema, a nation in the southern Congo basin
From the article on Commander Verney Lovett Cameron’s expedition, put together by the Royal Geographical Society to bring assistance to Dr. David Livingstone.
Scientific American Supplement, May 19, 1877

Nyangwé town, Congo
From the article on Commander Verney Lovett Cameron’s expedition, put together by the Royal Geographical Society to bring assistance to Dr. David Livingstone.
Scientific American Supplement, May 19, 1877

Hut in Lake Mohrya, Congo basin
From the article on Commander Verney Lovett Cameron’s expedition, put together by the Royal Geographical Society to bring assistance to Dr. David Livingstone.
Scientific American Supplement, May 19, 1877



The Scientific Life of Dr. Livingstone
The Royal Society of Edinburgh
Edinburgh, Scotland
March 19, 2013
More information is at

Livingstone Symposium: Celebrating and Learning from David Livingstone
Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow
Glasgow, Scotland.
March 19, 2013
More information is at

The Legend of Livingstone
Illustrated talk by Colonel John Blashford-Snell, and charity auction.
The Royal Geographical Society, London.
April 23, 2013
More information is available via email at

Imperial Obsessions: David Livingstone, Africa and World History
International Academic Conference in Livingstone, Zambia. Jointly hosted jointly by The London School of Economics; The Livingstone Museum, Zambia and The David Livingstone Bicentenary, Livingstone, Zambia. 
April 19-21
More information is at

Bicentenary events listings: