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Celebrating the life and legacy of Alfred Russel Wallace

Alfred Russel Wallace

An intrepid explorer and brilliant naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913) co-published the theory of evolution by natural selection with Charles Darwin in 1858 and was one of the most celebrated scientists of his era.

In 2013 the Museum will celebrate Wallace's life and legacy. Follow the work of the Museum's curators as they prepare for the Wallace100 centenary.

Discover more about Alfred Russel Wallace

View an interactive timeline of Wallace's life

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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:

 

 

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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's Spiritualist Certificate.jpg

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.

 

-Caroline-

Wallace Correspondence Project

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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.

 

Well-known names from the scientific world contributed to the fund, including Archibald Geikie, E. Ray Lankester and David Prain as well as contributors from the world of spiritualism and long-term correspondents of Wallace’s – Oliver Lodge and William Crookes.

 

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 5 December 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.

 

Wallace statue.jpgThe 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.

 

-Caroline-

Wallace Correspondence Project



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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.

 

W.G. Wallace

 

Dr. Wallace passed away very peacefully at 9.25 a.m without regaining consciousness. W.G.W.”

 

WCP1649_L1487_1.jpg

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)

 

-Caroline-

Wallace Correspondence Project

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Flett Lecture Theatre

7 November 2013 (the 100th anniversary of Wallace's death)

17.30-18.30

 

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.

 

To enter, visit the competition page (please be sure to read the Terms and Conditions before entering).

 

The closing date for entries is midnight, 27 October 2013. Winners will be notified on Monday 28 October 2013.

Please note you need to be a UK resident aged 18 and over to enter the Wallace100 lecture free prize draw.

 

For information about other events which are taking place at the Museum on the anniversary day visit the Wallace website.

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Wallace100 authors

Wallace100 logo

The Wallace100 blog is written by:

  • George Beccaloni
    Curator of Orthopteroidea and the Wallace Collection

With contributions from:

  • Jan Beccaloni
    Curator of Arachnida and Myriapoda
  • Caroline Catchpole
    Wallace Correspondence Project Archivist
  • Judith Magee
    Library Special Collections Curator

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