Alfred Russel Wallace is brought out of Darwin's shadow

24 January 2013

This week is the start of the Natural History Museum's Wallace100 events programme, a year-long celebration of Alfred Russel Wallace, the often overlooked co-discoverer of the process of evolution by natural selection. Tonight, comedian and naturalist Bill Bailey unveils a portrait of Wallace in the iconic Central Hall near the Charles Darwin statue and launches Wallace Letters Online, a unique digital archive of all the great man's correspondence.

Wallace's note about the loss of his original manuscript of the paper about 'survival of the fittest

Wallace's note about the loss of his original manuscript of the paper about 'survival of the fittest' that he sent to Darwin and which prompted Darwin to publish his own ideas. It's thought to be written around 1902.

Alfred Russel Wallace independently came up with the theory of evolution by natural selection and he sent an essay on the subject to Charles Darwin in 1858 from a remote island in Indonesia. 

Darwin was horrified as he had been working on the same theory for many years and so he turned to his close friend Charles Lyell for advice. Lyell teamed up with another of Darwin's friends, Joseph Hooker, and only 14 days after Wallace's essay had arrived in the UK, they arranged for it to be presented together with some extracts of Darwin's unpublished writings on the subjects, to a meeting of the Linnean Society of London. 

Wallace and Darwin's writings were then published by the Society in August 1858. This was more than one year before Darwin’s book On the Origin of Species came out, which is often mistakenly thought of as the first place the theory was proposed.

Wallace Letters Online

Unfortunately most of the letters surrounding the publication of natural selection are lost, but many other important letters to and from Wallace have survived, and these are now accessible to everyone via the Wallace Letters Online (WLO). They include Wallace's complete correspondence with Charles Darwin, which has never been published in full before, plus a lot more besides.

Dr George Beccaloni, Director of the Wallace Correspondence Project and a curator at the Museum says, 'Wallace's correspondence is second only to Darwin's in terms of its importance in the history of biology. It is the major primary source of information about his life and work.'

George Beccaloni and Bill Bailey celebrate the centenary of Alfred Russel Wallace.

George Beccaloni and Bill Bailey celebrate the centenary of Alfred Russel Wallace in 2013.

Over 4,000 letters and other documents have been digitised for WLO and they throw light on the many aspects of this ground-breaking scientist's life and work. 

Wallace founded evolutionary biogeography (the study of the geographical distribution of plants and animals) and made many significant contributions to subjects as diverse as anthropology and epidemiology. He was also an intrepid traveller and an avid collector of natural history specimens, sending back many thousands of species new to science to the UK for further study, many of which are now in the Museum collections.

‘Collating, transcribing and making this material freely available online marks a huge advance in understanding this great man. It presents a wealth of new information for those interested in Wallace’s life, work and beliefs. I hope it will help build a new and more accurate picture of him, and help to bring him out of Darwin's shadow.’

Portrait of Alfred Russel Wallace - on display in the Museum's Central Hall on Friday

Portrait of Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913). It will be on display to the public in the Museum's Central Hall near the Charles Darwin statue from Friday and will be unveiled at the launch of Wallace Letters Online and Wallace100 Thursday evening.


There are lots of events and activities happening around the world for Wallace100. At the Museum, families will be able to follow a Wallace discovery trail over the summer to see some of Wallace’s most important specimens, and also take part in lively, interactive Nature Live talks about Wallace. 

For adults, there will be monthly lectures about Wallace’s life and work by leading biologists and historians. The first lecture is on 7 February 2013, with Professor Steve Jones, world-renowned geneticist from UCL. There will also be video-conferences for schools.


The magnificent oil painting of Wallace, unveiled by Bill Bailey who is the patron of the Wallace Memorial Fund, was donated to the Museum in 1923 to mark the 100th anniversary of Wallace's birth. It has been repaired, cleaned and re-varnished and has been returned to its original position on the main stairs of the Central Hall, where it hung until it was moved in 1971.

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