Watch a video recording by the British Humanist Association of a talk about Wallace's life and work and his discovery of evolution by natural selection. I presented this talk at Ancestor's Trail 2013 on the 25 August 2013:
This is the last in my letter of the month series and I thought I’d end by exploring another side of Wallace and write about his interest in Spiritualism.
The letter was written to William Fletcher Barrett (1844-1925), a friend of Wallace’s and a fellow Spiritualist. Barrett, a physicist and parapsychologist published accounts of his experiments with thought transference in the journal Nature in September 1876. It caused such controversy that Barrett felt compelled to found a society for like-minded individuals - thus the Society for Psychical Research was born in January 1882 - a society that Wallace became involved in.
WP2/4/1: Wallace was made an honorary member of the Central Association of Spiritualists in 1882
Wallace’s letter to Barrett was written on 18 December 1876 and opens with Wallace inviting Barrett to lunch with him at his home in Dorking as he would like to “take advantage of any opportunity that you may have to test the power of sensitive’s to see the "flames" from magnets & crystals; & also to feel the influence from them”.
Wallace became more interested in Spiritualism on his return from the Malay Archipelago and became actively involved in the spiritualist community, attending séances and writing about them - he even kept a notebook of séances he attended and phenomena experienced. His interest in Spiritualism garnered him criticism from some in the scientific community who thought his interest and belief in it lost him some scientific credibility. Never one for really being too bothered about what others thought of him, Wallace continued to be vocal and expound his beliefs. He thought it rash that scientists dismissed it out of hand and believed Spiritualism could really benefit from scientific investigation.
The main part of Wallace’s letter to Barrett concerns the trial of Henry Slade (1835-1905). Slade was an American 'slate-writing' medium, meaning he would place a small slate piece and chalk under a table during his séances and would claim spirits would use it to write messages. However, there were episodes where he was accused of being a fraud and writing the messages himself. In 1872, in New York he was caught swapping slates during a séance (one blank and one with writing on) by someone using a secret mirror.
In 1876 in London, Ray Lankester caught Slade in the act by seizing a slate that had writing on before the spirit was said to have written on it. Slade was prosecuted for fraud.
In the letter Wallace asks Barrett to sign a memorial for Slade and talks about the case
“You will have heard no doubt of the Treasury having taken up the prosecution of Slade. Massey the Barrister, one of the most intelligent & able of the Spiritualists (whose accession to the cause is due I am glad to say to my article in the Fortnightly) proposes a memorial & deputation to Government protesting against this prosecution by the Treasury on the grounds it implies that Slade is an habitual imposter & nothing else, & that in face of the body of evidence to the contrary, it is an uncalled for interference with the private right of investigation into these subjects.”
It is interesting to read letters that explore the many other facets of Wallace. Spiritualism was a big part of his life and we have many letters in Wallace Letters Online that attest to this.
With the Wallace100 year drawing to a close, a year that has seen us remember and celebrate the legacy of Alfred Russel Wallace 100 years after his death, I was interested to find out if there was any activity immediately after Wallace’s death in November 1913 to mark his extraordinary life in any way. I thought there was no better place to start looking than in the letters sent after his death found on Wallace Letters Online.
Shortly after his death, Wallace’s three close friends, James Marchant, Raphael Meldola and Edward Bagnall Poulton set up the Wallace Memorial Fund, also known as the Memorial Committee. The fund’s purpose was to create a memorial for Wallace, in the form of a medallion featuring Wallace for Westminster Abbey; a portrait of him and a statue of him for the Natural History Museum.
As it turned out only the medallion and the portrait were created, with the memorial unveiled at the Abbey on 1 November 1915 and the painting by J. W. Beaufort presented to the Museum on the 100th anniversary of his birth in January 1923.
Marchant, Meldola and Poulton set about raising awareness of the Fund and raising money in the months following November 1913. In a letter written to Poulton on 23 February 1914, Meldola (the Fund’s Treasurer) informs Poulton
“The Fund is now £236 & Marchant wants to issue order for Medallion”.
Westminster Abbey was delighted to accept the medallion and nine months after this letter was written, it was unveiled.
However, a letter from William Greenell Wallace in January 1914 to TDA Cockerell, who was a close friend of Wallace’s, revealed the difficulties the Fund was having in realising their ambitious programme;
“I am sorry to say that the memorial fund is progressing very slowly and I doubt it will be possible to do more than the Abbey medallion, and even that will cost £300. The Abbey fee, for permission only, is £200 and the sculptor’s fee, greatly reduced in this case, is £100. It seems that fame without money has not much chance of recognition in this democratic country.”
“There is no fear that the statue will [be] disappointing as there is no chance of it being done, at present.”
Violet Wallace, in a letter to Octavius Pickard-Cambridge written on 5December 1913 talked about the possible statue, writing,
“I like the idea of a statue if it could be like the one of Darwin in the N. H. Museum – that one always looks so natural, and my father would look nice.”
Sadly, the Fund didn’t raise enough money to achieve all of their aims, with the statue not being realised. However, 100 years after his death, there is at last a statue of Wallace housed at the Museum, a fitting way to commemorate Wallace and his achievements.
The Wallace Memorial Fund launched a new fundraising campaign last year and comissioned sculptor Anthony Smith to create a statue of Wallace in his exploring days, as a young naturalist in the field. It is also perhaps fitting, that the statue will be positioned close to the Darwin Centre, where the bulk of Wallace’s specimens that he collected during his years in the field are now housed.
The new statue of Alfred Russel Wallace after its unveiling by Sir David Attenborough.
Update: The new statue was unveiled at a ceremony last night by Sir David Attenborough and will be located inside the Darwin Centre for the weekend before moving to its permanent position outside on Monday.
This month’s selected letter, or rather, note, is as short and succinct as I will keep this blog post. It was written by Wallace’s son William Greenell Wallace announcing his father’s death, and is dated 7 November 1913 - the very day Wallace passed away.
The short note reads,
“Dr. Wallace was taken ill on Sunday night.
He has not left his bed since Monday night.
Dr. Wallace has passed a restless night & seems weaker this morning.
Dr. Wallace passed away very peacefully at 9.25 a.m without regaining consciousness. W.G.W.”
WCP1649: William Greenell Wallace's announcement
Wallace led a long and successful life, living to be 90 years of age, with only minor health problems later in life. The plethora of obituaries that were written following his death are testament to what an extraordinary life he led. I’ll leave you with a few quotes from a few different ones published in the weeks after his death.
"A life so long, so active, and so varied, cannot be dealt with in a small compass. Simple and unostentatious, he was a great man in the truest sense of the word." (British Medical Journal, 15th November 1913)
"He was one of the greatest and clearest thinkers of his age . . . of one thing I am certain, and that is that never has anybody come more fully within my favourite description of a great man, namely, that 'he is a combination of the head of a man and the heart of a boy.'" (The Daily Citizen, 8th November 1913)
"By the death of Alfred Russel Wallace this country loses not only a great scientist, but the last of the men who made the early part of the Victorian era so memorable." (Daily News & Leader, 8th November 1913)
"The last link with the great evolutionary writers of the mid-nineteenth century--the men who transformed the thought of the world--is broken. How can I best speak of the long, happy, hard-working, many-sided life that has just come to a close?" (Nature, 20 November 1913)
"It is impossible for any man to discuss adequately the life work of Alfred Russel Wallace. His activities covered such a long period, and were so varied, that no one living is in a position to critically appreciate more than a part of them . . . All must agree that a great and significant career has just been closed, but its full measure will probably never be known to any single man." (Science, 1913 December 1913)
7 November 2013 (the 100th anniversary of Wallace's death)
To commemorate the centenary of Wallace's death, Sir David Attenborough will be giving a lecture at the Museum about Wallace's passion for birds of paradise. Wallace studied the birds during his travels in the Malay Archipelago between 1854 and 1862 and you can win one of 25 pairs of tickets to the lecture by entering our free prize draw.
As many of you will know, the Museum has been celebrating the life and work of Alfred Russel Wallace this year in a big way. As part of the celebrations, the Museum's magazine evolve has published four interesting articles about Wallace, and thanks to an agreement with the magazine's Senior Editor Helen Sturge, and the authors of the articles in question, they can now be downloaded as PDFs.
+ Richard Conniff's article Wallace: species seeker extraordinaire from issue 15 (pictured). Download the PDF.
+ Caroline Catchpole's article Letters of a naturalist: the Wallace Correspondence Project fromissue 16. Download the PDF.
+ George Beccaloni's article Wallace immortalised: Museum set to receive Wallace statue 100 years later than planned from issue 17. Download the PDF.
+ Jim Costa's article On the Organic Law of Change: Alfred Russel Wallace and the book that should have been from issue 17. Download the PDF.
Because issue 17 of evolve hasn't even been distributed yet you will get to read the two interesting articles in it before everyone else!
October's letter of the month was written by Wallace to his son William from the Quincy Hotel in Boston, America. Written on 29October 1886, Wallace had just embarked on what was to be a ten month lecture tour around North America.
The idea for a trip to lecture in America had actually been born a few years previously when Wallace met James Lowell at Darwin’s funeral - both were pallbearers. Lowell, a few years later in 1885, invited Wallace to be a speaker at the prestigious Lowell Institute's lecture series.
In a letter written in January 1886 to Othniel Charles Marsh, with whom Wallace had also discussed the possibility of lecturing abroad, Wallace wrote that,
“... circumstances have led me to contemplate a visit to the United States next Autumn on a lecturing tour around the world."
Although Wallace now had a degree of financial security in the form of a civil pension of £200 per annum that he began receiving in 1882, he cites to Marsh that,
“Serious losses of late years have rendered it necessary for me to do anything in my power to secure a provision for my family, and it is this consideration alone that would make me encounter the risks and fatigue of such a journey at my age and with my somewhat precarious health.”
And so it was that he left Gravesend on Saturday 9 October 1886 on a steamship, docking in New York, two weeks later on Saturday 23 October.
Wallace’s letter to William came when he had been in America six days and he writes of the voyage over, and of his activities since his arrival. He writes of seeing the “great” Statue of Liberty - which had actually been dedicated the day before Wallace wrote his letter on 28October.
He stayed in New York for four days before travelling to Boston, from where he wrote to William. He records in the letter his thoughts on Central Park, it being,
“something like Epping Forest & something like Wales -- small hills and rocks everywhere with trees & flowers, and lakes in the hollows.”
On the journey to Boston Wallace observes all around him, commenting on the landscape, “rocky but not very hilly” and likening the wooden houses in the towns and villages he passed to “toy houses”.
WCP423: Wallace's letter to William from Boston
Wallace gave his first lecture two days after this letter was written on Monday 1 November to a sold-out audience; the lecture was entitled “The Darwinian Theory”. In total he gave 41 lectures, his last being in August 1887.
He never did make it around the world - his original plan which he outlined in his letter to Marsh was to travel to New Zealand and Australia from America and then onto the Cape of Good Hope before heading home to the UK. He did, however, make it to California to see his brother John, who he hadn’t seen in more than forty years.
At the time of the lecture series, Wallace was the greatest living naturalist - Darwin having died in 1882 and he was able to use the series to talk on a variety of subjects, including Darwinism. His most popular lecture was the first he ever delivered “The Darwinian Theory”. Although the lectures were not as forthcoming as he had initially anticipated, he still managed to talk on a variety of topics, including an apparently extremely successful lecture on Spiritualism entitled “If a Man Die, Shall he Live Again?” given in San Francisco in June 1887.
The trip, no doubt also helped him organise his thoughts on Darwinism as two years after the end of his trip, in 1889, he published Darwinism, his defence of natural selection.
Although, not a very well-known chapter in Wallace’s life, the lecturing tour around America is nonetheless interesting and can be explored through the letters in Wallace Letters Online. An excellent new book, "Alfred Russel Wallace's 1886-1887 Travel Diary" by Charles Smith, has recently been published this year, giving a very detailed account of the tour.
We're still tweeting about Wallace in this anniversary year and I have two more letters to share with you before concluding my letter of the month series.
A wonderful and unique map, showing the routes of Wallace and Darwin's journeys and explaining how both men came to discover evolution by natural selection, has just been published by Operation Wallacea in association with the Wallace Memorial Fund. An image of the map is shown below and a larger version is attached as a PDF file (see the link at the bottom of this post).
The map is being distributed free of charge as a high quality A2 size (42 x 59.4 cm; 16.54 x 23.39 inches) poster to all secondary schools in the UK as well as a further 10,000 schools worldwide - a GREAT way of increasing awareness of Wallace.
An Indonesian language version of the poster will probably also be produced for distribution to schools in Indonesia. If you would like a physical copy of the English version of the poster at cost price then please email firstname.lastname@example.org. The price is £1 plus postage and packing.
I will also have a limited number of copies to give away at Science Uncovered on Friday 27 September between 17.30 and 18.30. Please come and find me at the Evolution Station in the Museum's Central Hall. Come early to avoid disappointment!
The map comparing Darwin's and Wallace's travels, which led to them independently formulating their theory of evolution by natural selection.
This month’s letter of the month was written from the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.
"I am afraid the ship’s on fire."
These fateful words were uttered by the Captain of the Brig Helen on 6 August 1852, which was sailing from South America to London, as a fire broke out in the ship’s hold. The dramatic events of the fire and subsequent rescue of the ship’s crew and passengers are recorded in a letter from Wallace, who had spent the previous four years travelling through the Amazon, to his friend Richard Spruce (1817-1893).
WCP349: Page one of the eight page letter to Spuce detailing the sinking.
The letter was written from the Brig Jordeson on 19 September 1852, the vessel that saved the stricken survivors after they had endured ten harrowing days and nights in a small row boat, 200 miles from the nearest land, with water seeping into the boat from numerous holes. Wallace describes how he was “scorched by the sun, [his] hands nose and ears being completely skinned, and [was] drenched every day by the seas and spray”. They finally anchored ship at Deal, Kent, on 1st October with Wallace rejoicing to Spruce
“Oh! Glorious day! Here we are on shore at Deal where the ship is at anchor. Such a dinner! Oh! Beef steaks and damson tart, a paradise for hungry sinners.”
The joy at being back on dry land in England is clear to see, made even more poignant by the terrible storms they had to endure in the English Channel the night before they anchored; storms, in which “many vessels were lost”.
Wallace’s journey to the Amazon began in Leicester in 1844 when he met budding young amateur naturalist Henry Walter Bates (1825-1892), after Wallace accepted a job at the Collegiate School there. Wallace moved to Neath, Wales in 1845, but kept in regular contact with Bates, and it was this friendship that first stirred in Wallace an interest in entomology.
A seed was sown in Wallace’s mind after reading William Henry Edwards' book A Voyage up the River Amazon, and early in 1848 he began making plans with Bates for their own voyage to South America. This idea came to fruition as the two young, eager friends set sail from Liverpool on 26 April 1848 bound for Pará (Belém).
For Wallace the aim of their Amazon trip was two-fold. Firstly, they were to go and collect specimens of birds, insects and other animals not only for their private collections, but also to sell to collectors and museums across Europe. Secondly, Wallace went with the aim of attempting to discover the mechanism of evolution. Having read the controversial Vestiges of Natural History of Creation by Robert Chambers in 1845, he became convinced of the reality of evolution, which was then known by the term of transmutation. Indeed, in a letter to Bates in 1847, he asserted that he sought to “take one family, to study thoroughly- principally with a view to the theory of the origin of species”.
Wallace and Bates parted company whilst there to focus on different areas, with Wallace travelling around the Amazon basin and Rio Negro. It was here he made beautifully intricate drawings of fish species he found on the Rio Negro, and also used his land surveying skills to create a wonderfully detailed map of the Rio Negro; so detailed and accurate that it became the standard map of the river for many years. You can see this map for yourself at the museum, as it forms part of the Wallace Discovery Trail.
Wallace decided to leave the Amazon in 1852 after becoming quite poorly. He sadly lost his brother, Edward, in June 1851 to yellow fever, after Edward had joined Wallace and Bates earlier on the expedition. Wallace boarded the Brig Helen on 12 July, sailing for 26 days before disaster struck.
Wallace describes very candidly in his letter to Spruce the frantic moments after the discovery of the fire and the realisation that they would need to abandon ship. He managed to run back to his cabin and collect some items together in a small tin box. He tells Spruce he felt “foolish” in saving his watch and money. However, once aboard the life-boat his regrets at not having “saved some new shoes, cloth coat and trousers” are clear to see.
Tragically, Wallace lost all of his natural history specimens, so painstakingly collected over the previous two years; the specimens he collected during the first two years having been successfully posted back to his agent, and he recounts this tragedy to Spruce in the letter:
“My collections however were in the hold and were irrevocably lost. And now I begin to think, that almost all the reward of my four years of privation and danger were lost. What I had hitherto sent home had little more than paid my expenses and what I had in the “Helen” I calculated would realise near £500 [around £30,000 in today’s money]. But even all this might have gone with little regret had not far the richest part of my own private collection gone also. All my private collection of insects and birds since I left Pará was with me, and contained hundreds of new and beautiful species which would have rendered (I had fondly hoped) my cabinet, as far regards American species, one of the finest in Europe”
A few gems from this trip, however, do survive, and are preserved by us here at the Museum, the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and The Linnean Society. When in his cabin, frantically trying to fit as much as he could in his tin box, Wallace scooped up the drawings he had made of the fishes of the Rio Negro and of Amazonian palms. The Library’s Special Collections now hold the four volumes of fish drawings, with the palm drawings held by the Linnean. The specimens of palms collected, which are now housed in Kew’s Herbarium, were sent back during the first two years of the expedition.
One of Wallace's fish drawings that we hold here at the Museum
At the end of his letter to Spruce, written from London on 8 October, Wallace muses about his next trip. He mentions the Andes or the Philippines as possible destinations for his next collecting expedition.
However, as we know, in 1854, Wallace headed out to explore the islands of the Malay Archipelago (Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia), spending eight years there.
This letter of the month highlights the real danger faced by those who travelled to far flung corners of the world in the hope of advancing our understanding of the natural world, in sometimes dangerous and harsh conditions. It’s hard not to feel for Wallace having lost the fruits of his hard fought labour.
However, every story has a silver lining and Wallace’s Malay Archipelago trip certainly must have helped heal the wounds of the lost Amazon collections. The result of eight years hard work in south-east Asia was an unrivalled collection of 110,000 insects, 7,500 shells, 8,050 bird skins, and 410 mammal and reptile specimens, including well over a thousand species new to science. His book The Malay Archipelago, first published in 1869, is the most celebrated travel book of that region and has not been out of print since it was first published.
We're still tweeting about Wallace in this anniversary year and check back next month when I will be writing about another of my favourite letters.
Later this month on the 27 September we will be getting out a few Wallace treasures from the Library to showcase at the free to attend Science Uncovered. It promises to be an exciting night and you can see the Wallace treasures along with other items from the Library's amazing collections by booking a free Treasure's of the Library tour.
Deane, an engineer who was born in London in 1847, had emigrated to Australia in 1879 and was responsible for electrifying the Sydney tramway system, and for building the Wolgan Valley Railway and Trans-Australian Railway. Deane graduated from Queen’s College, Galway, with honours in mathematics and natural sciences and later in life was twice president of the Royal Society New South Wales and was also president of the Linnean Society of New South Wales.
Wallace had found his name in a list of Linnean Society members living abroad and wrote to Deane in part to tell him how he recalled many happy evenings spent in Clapham Common with his mother and father - a chemist also called Henry. However, Wallace’s chief objective for writing this letter was not to reminisce, it was to source orchids. He had even included a set of guidelines entitled, "Instructions for packing & sending Terrestrial Orchids for cultivation."
Wallace in his garden at Parkstone, Dorset in 1895.
Orchids and gardening - whilst allowing us an insight into Wallace’s personal life through his hobbies - are not the reasons I selected this piece as the letter of the month. The reason for selecting this letter, is because of its very last line, where Wallace writes:
"There is, I presume, a great future for Electricity in all parts of the world and in many yet undiscovered applications."
This closed the last paragraph of the letter, which was devoted to writing about his son, William, who had just qualified as an electrical engineer. With Deane himself being an engineer, he would no doubt have been interested in this little snippet of information.
However, that last sentence above really caught my eye and made stop and think just how different a world we are living in to the world Wallace inhabited and just what would he make of where we are scientifically and technologically today. I think he’d have some pretty strong opinions about both!
To give some context, the world in which Wallace lived in in 1892 was not without electricity. The electric motor had been invented over 70 years previously in 1821 by Michael Faraday, the first intelligible phone communication took place in 1875; 1879 was the year Edison invented the light bulb and it only took two years from there for electric light to be used in a domestic setting, albeit most probably a rich domestic setting. Electrification of trams in England happened in the 1890s and Marconi made significant strides in radio telegrahy and transmission.
So, the world was not without electricity. However, there were no televisions, no computers, no smartphones, no tablets, no hair straighteners, no electric cars, no electric fridges, no dishwashers, no commercial air travel… well you get the idea!
Now, I’m not qualified to judge what the best electrical innovation has been since Wallace made this statement in 1892, but I’d say computers have got to be up there competing for first place. What would Wallace make of them? What would he say about the internet, about social media, even about me writing this blog about a letter he sent to Australia in 1892?! And the fact that this letter has now been digitised and is available to read on the internet. Would he care?
I think he would. I think the fact that he wrote that sentence means he would care and take an immense interest in electrical and technological innovation over the last 100 years since his death. He was an inquisitive man who, as we well know, did not confine himself to simply studying the natural world. To use a well-known phrase, he had his fingers in many pies and our very different way of living would probably delight and horrify him in equal measures. He would, I think, appreciate how easy it is to disseminate information to mass audiences today in order to educate, and how easy it is to obtain information for research from an online scholarly journal (Wallace Letters Online is full of letters where he asks the recipient to send him a particular journal article he can’t obtain).
What would horrify him would be something that he actually wrote about 4 years before his death in 1909. He wrote to the Daily News a cautionary letter in response to receiving a programme entitled, "Aerial League of the British Empire" whose aim was to "To secure and maintain for the Empire the same supremacy in the air as it now enjoys on the sea" and Wallace urged the government in this open letter, "to dissociate itself from this proposed crime against humanity it is now. If ever there was a time when we should take the initiative against adding this new horror to the horrors of war (which all civilized Governments profess to be eager to diminish) it is now."
The way he wrote about such things shows what great foresight and intellect he had and also how incredibly sensible he was. It is perhaps a good thing he died before he witnessed the atrocities inflicted by aeroplanes and "flying machines" in the two World Wars and beyond into the present day.
I picked this letter to write about as it just proves no two letters in Wallace Letters Online are the same and the fact that Wallace continues to constantly surprise and intrigue me. We’re still tweeting about Wallace over on the Library & Archives twitter feed and check back next month, when I’ll write about another intriguing letter written by the man himself.