Today sees the launch of a new resource that will hopefully offer users an invaluable insight into life and work of an eminent Victorian scientist; a scientist we hold dear to our hearts here at the Museum! Wallace Letters Online is an online archive of the correspondence to and from Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913), co-discoverer of the theory of evolution via natural selection and the father of bio-geography.
Above: Alfred Russel Wallace in 1848, aged 25.
© Natural History Museum, London
Wallace Letters Online brings together for the first time ever, all known surviving letters to and from Wallace, both academic and personal. This correspondence is housed in more than 100 institutions across the globe and this resource will offer an unparalleled insight into the mind of this great man; his thoughts, ideas and opinions laid bare for all to study. Highlights include the complete, surviving narrative between Wallace and Charles Darwin, letters sent and received during his Amazon and Malay Archipelago expeditions and correspondence Wallace exchanged with some of the greatest scientific minds of the nineteenth century.
Working as the Archivist for the Wallace Correspondence Project and having the privilege of reading Wallace’s letters has afforded me the opportunity to see first-hand, the great qualities he had; from his formidable intellect to his sharp and enquiring mind and a very quick wit, it’s all there in the letters, waiting to be uncovered. For me, personally, Wallace Letters Online offers another dimension, that of the exploration of Victorian communication networks.
Embedded amongst the historically and scientifically ground-breaking letters are those that pertain to the nuances of everyday life. The letters that Wallace writes confirming train times to friends who are to visit him or the enquiring letters, asking if a friend can lend him a bed for the night in London so he may attend an evening function. Put simply, these are communications that today we would send via text, tweet or Facebook message. These are also the communications that should a similar correspondence project be attempted 200 years from now would be lost and whilst one could argue that these types of letters offer no significant value, their absence would strip away a whole layer of knowledge about the social interactions of that era.
Whilst we celebrate Wallace as a great man of science and one of the greatest natural history collectors of all time, his correspondence also reveal the many, many different subjects and causes he wrote on and campaigned for. He became a Spiritualist in the late 1860s and published over a hundred writings on the subject. He became a vocal campaigner and supporter of Land Nationalisation, becoming the first President of the Land Nationalisation Society in 1881 and he was fervent in his opposition of compulsory vaccination in the closing years of the nineteenth century. All of these topics and more are featured in the letters in Wallace Letters Online. It also affords us a privileged glimpse into his family life, with letters digitised from Wallace to his two children, William and Violet. These letters reveal the affection towards but also the high standards Wallace held his children to.
Above: Extract of a letter from Wallace to his son William.
© Natural History Museum, London
Fortunately for us, Wallace had beautiful handwriting (as seen above) which makes reading his letters all the more enjoyable. Whether for research, curiosity or pleasure, you can now step back in time and read first hand his thoughts, opinions and arguments; you might be surprised at what you find. The catalogue will continue to be added to over the coming months with more letters from repositories around the world. We are also always extremely happy to hear from anyone who may own a Wallace letter or knows of some letters held in a private collection; please contact me with any details.
2013 also sees the Museum celebrating the life and legacy of Wallace, who died 100 years ago this coming November. To see what the up and coming Wallace events are at the Museum this year, head over to the Wallace100 pages of the website to find out more. We're also tweeting about Wallace over at the Library and Archives Twitter feed; follow us for a weekly dose of all things Wallace!