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Press release

The 'lost' treasures of Alfred Russel Wallace come to the Natural History Museum

Curator restores 150-year-old insects in historical collection

A newly discovered collection owned by one of the greatest scientists of all time, Alfred Russel Wallace, has been donated to the Natural History Museum. Co-discoverer of evolution by natural selection, Wallace was exploring and collecting natural history specimens in the Spice Islands when he wrote to Darwin, prompting him to present his theory of natural selection to the Linnean Society of London in 1858. Their co-authored 1858 paper On the Tendency of Species to Form Varieties and On the Perpetuation of Varieties and Species by Natural Means of Selection preceded Darwin's seminal work On the Origin of Species by one year.

Wallace's grandson Richard discovered the collection, badly damaged by insect pests, hidden in his attic where it had been stored for decades. Natural History Museum curator George Beccaloni has spent more than 40 hours meticulously gluing the specimens back together and he believes they are now around 90 per cent intact.

The four drawers hold 219 specimens, including beetles, bugs and stick insects, which Wallace collected in southeast Asia in the 1850s and 1860s. The collection features some of the most spectacular insect species that Wallace discovered, such as the huge longhorn beetle Batocera wallacei, plus several of the actual specimens illustrated by woodcuts in Wallace's famous travel book The Malay Archipelago, published in 1869 and still in print.

Natural History Museum curator George Beccaloni said, 'It was an emotional and rewarding experience for me to restore these forgotten specimens. Considering how fragile they are I am very surprised they survived at all. Wallace was not only one of the world's greatest biologists, but he was also one of the most prolific collectors of natural history specimens of all time. Although he sold most of his collections by 1870 in order to support himself and his family, he kept a few of the specimens he was most fond of to remind him of his travels in the tropics. It is incredible that these historically important specimens have now been rediscovered. This collection is a major acquisition for the Natural History Museum and it will be of considerable interest to the many people fascinated by this great man.'

For Beccaloni, one of the most exciting aspects of the find is that it forms a kind of Rosetta Stone, a reference for identifying other Wallace specimens and decoding his system of labelling. The Natural History Museum can now use this information to identify other Wallace specimens previously unknown in the Museum's collection.

The Natural History Museum acquired the Wallace family's private collection of Alfred Russel Wallace manuscripts and specimens in 2002. These forgotten specimens will join this collection in the Museum's Rare Books Room. The specimens will be included in the Wallace online digital resource of some 200 Wallace items to be launched in July 2006. 

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Notes for editors
o Winner of the 2004 Large Visitor Attraction of the Year award, the Natural History Museum is also a world-leading science research centre. Through its collections and scientific expertise, the Museum is helping to conserve the extraordinary richness and diversity of the natural world with groundbreaking projects in 68 countries. The Museum is committed to encouraging public engagement with science.

  • Sunday 12 February is Darwin Day, the anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth in 1809.
  • For more information on Alfred Russel Wallace, visit www.wku.edu/~smithch/index1.htm
  • A photocall will be held on Friday 10 February at 09.00. Please contact the Press Office for further information.

For further information please telephone +44 (0)20 7942 5654 or email press@nhm.ac.uk