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Wallace: The most admirable man in all science?

Posted by on August 12, 2014

To celebrate the place of Alfred Russel Wallace in the top ten biologists who’ve changed the world, Dr Elizabeth Rollinson, executive secretary at the Linnean Society writes about his achievements.ARwallace

Alfred Russel Wallace was a naturalist and explorer, born in 1823 in Usk, Wales. In 1852, he began a correspondence with Charles Darwin that would go on to change the course of natural history forever. Whilst collecting specimens and researching in the Malay Archipelago in 1858, Wallace famously sent Darwin his paper On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely From the Original Type. The paper dealt with environmental impacts and the resulting divergence (or evolution) of species – a theory similar to, but not the same as, Darwin’s own ‘natural selection’. While Wallace’s theory developed around species adapting to environmental pressures to survive, Darwin’s theory looked at the pressure of competition between the same, or similar, species.  A joint paper by the two scientists was read at the Linnean Society in 1858. This and other Wallace-related papers can be found in a virtual issue of the Biological Journal of the Linnean Society.

In 1848, the 25-year-old Wallace set out with his friend Henry Walter Bates on an expedition to the Amazonian rainforests, to study the plants and animals there, collecting specimens to sell along the way. Wallace spent 4 years in the Amazon before sailing back to London aboard the Helen. After just 26 days at sea, the Helen caught fire and sank. All of Wallace’s specimens from the final year of his trip were lost in the shipwreck. Upon his return from the Amazon, Wallace spent 18 months in London, writing 2 books and 6 scientific papers. He also spent a lot of time visiting the natural history collections which were held at the British Museum. It was during one visit there that Wallace first met Charles Darwin.

In 1854 Wallace set off for the Malay Archipelago. He spent 8 years exploring all of the major islands, studying the plants and animals and collecting specimens. It was here that Wallace developed his theory of evolution, and theorised about the geographical distribution of animals. He identified the Wallace line, which divides the Indonesian archipelago into two distinct parts, with animals of an Australian descent on one side, and animals of an Asian origin on the other, leading Wallace to be known as the father of biogeography. Wallace collected over 126,000 specimens, including over 80,000 beetles, in the Malay Archipelago and digital images of his field notebooks are available online. His celebrated travel book, The Malay Archipelago (1869), has never been out of print, and has a plate showing a python being unceremoniously extracted from Wallace’s hut; the Linnean Society holds the skin from this snake in its collections.

Wallace had many financial difficulties during his life. He paid for his expeditions by collecting specimens for the wealthy, and then supported his family through his scientific writing. He was eventually granted a small government pension in 1881.

Wallace passed away in 1913, aged 90. Several prominent scientists of the day thought Wallace should be buried in Westminster Abbey, but his wife refused. He was buried in the local cemetery at Broadstone, with a piece of ossified tree trunk as his headstone.  After Wallace’s death a group of prominent British scientists campaigned to have a medallion of Wallace placed in Westminster Abbey near to Darwin’s resting place. It was unveiled in 1915, and remains there today.

Wallace is well summed up by Sir David Attenborough: “…there is no more admirable character in the history of science.” 

Biology: Changing the World is a heritage project of the Society, supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund and in partnership with the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council

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