Missing Wallace-Darwin letters search is on

10 August 2011

The search is on to find important 19th century letters between Alfred Russel Wallace and Charles Darwin, the co-discoverers of the process of evolution by natural selection.

Alfred Russel Wallace, co-discoverer with Charles Darwin of the process of evolution by natural sele

Alfred Russel Wallace, co-discoverer with Charles Darwin of the process of evolution by natural selection

The Alfred Russel Wallace Correspondence Project (WPC) is based at the Natural History Museum and its Patron is Sir David Attenborough. The WCP is digitising all known letters to and from Wallace, the brilliant naturalist whose contributions to the development of evolutionary theory were as important as Darwin’s, but who was quickly forgotten after his death, perhaps because later generations thought that the theory of natural selection was first proposed by Darwin in his book 'On the Origin of Species'.

In addition to Darwin, Wallace corresponded with many other famous people, from Rudyard Kipling and William Gladstone to Arthur Conan Doyle and Henry Fox Talbot. All of these letters will be scanned, catalogued and published online for researchers and historians worldwide to access.

Missing letters

But, there are 2 intriguing missing letters, written in 1858. One letter is from Wallace to Darwin and includes Wallace’s essay on natural selection, the process by which the fittest individuals of a species are more likely to survive, reproduce and pass their advantageous characteristic to their offspring. The other letter is Darwin’s reply to this.

Wallace's note about the loss of his original essay on evolution by natural selection, ar 1902

Note from Wallace on an envelope dated to around 1902, about the loss of his original letter and essay on evolution by natural selection. Darwin's reply to this historically important letter is missing and was the 3rd and most important in this envelope of 8 letters that Wallace kept. The Wallace Correspondence Project would very much like to find it.

‘These are some of the most important letters in the entire history of biology,’ says George Beccaloni, Director of WPC and scientist at the Museum. ‘It is very odd that they were lost in the first place.'

The letters show how Wallace independently came up with the same theory as Darwin, the theory that changed forever how we understand the world around us.

Third of 8 letters missing

‘Amongst Wallace’s papers was an envelope containing 8 letters from Darwin, but the 3rd, and most important one mentioned above, was missing,' says Beccaloni. 'It seems that someone might have removed this letter and then later put in another letter to make up the eight!’

‘Whatever happened, it is hard to believe that  Wallace did not keep this letter as he kept all the others from Darwin. 

'An exciting thought is that there is a remote possibility that this letter still survives and is in a private collection somewhere.’

More to find

The team believes that there may be hundreds of other Wallace letters hidden away in public archives and in private collections that they don't know about. ‘I'd be extremely grateful for people to contact me and let me know about these,’ says Beccaloni.

Project so far

The WPC has identified 4-5,000 letters written to or by Wallace. 1,800 are in the British Library.

Royal Society letter to Alfred Russel Wallace awarding him their prestigious Darwin Medal

Royal Society letter to Alfred Russel Wallace awarding him their prestigious Darwin Medal for his 'Independent Origination of the Theory of the Origin of Species by Natural Selection'. Wallace was the first ever recipient of this medal

The Natural History Museum, London, has about 1200 and nearly all of these have already been digitised. The rest are scattered in the collections of about 100 organisations around the world.

Later this year the WCP's catalogue of Wallace's letters will be published on the project's new website, which is currently being developed. There will be images of many of the letters and members of the public will be able to help the project by transcribing letters online

The project hopes to get copies of all surviving letters by 2013, the centenary of Wallace’s death.

Favourite letters

Beccaloni concludes with some of his favourites. 

‘One of my favourite letters is one sent to Wallace by Charles Darwin in 1867 in which Darwin remarks that he asked the famous naturalist Henry Walter Bates why some caterpillars are brightly coloured, and "as on some former similar occasion" Bates' replied that he didn't know, but suggested that Darwin had "better ask Wallace". Wallace, of course, had the answer!’

‘Another letter I like for its unintended irony, is from the Royal Society to Wallace in 1890, telling him that they have awarded him their Darwin Medal, for his "Independent Origination of the Theory of the Origin of Species by Natural Selection."

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