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Evolution pioneer’s illegible notebook brought back to life

The faded content of one of Alfred Russel Wallace’s notebooks has been revealed for the first time using high-tech imaging.

The notebook’s writing and sketches were ruined when the explorer’s ship sank more than 150 years ago.

One of the pioneers of evolutionary theory, Wallace devised the theory of evolution by natural selection independently of his more well-known contemporary Charles Darwin.

The notebook contains details of the specimens of fish and other animals Wallace collected around the Rio Negro, a large tributary of the Amazon River, and his observations of the local flora, fauna, geography and people.

Lost expedition

Wallace spent four years in the Amazon rainforest before boarding a ship back to England in 1852. During the return voyage his ship caught fire and sank, taking all of the specimens Wallace had collected during the last two years of his trip down with it.

All he managed to save were some of his notes and sketches, which are now the only record of his lost specimens.

These are in fairly good condition, apart from one small notebook, which is thought to have suffered water damage during the ten days that Wallace spent drifting in the mid-Atlantic in an open lifeboat awaiting rescue.

One of Wallace's fish drawings from the Rio Negro


Saved by spectral imaging

The illegible text of Wallace’s notebook has at last been revealed using a new hyperspectral imaging system at the British Library.

While the human eye only sees a small portion of the electromagnetic spectrum, which we call visible light, hyperspectral imaging can detect wavelengths invisible to the human eye and convert these into an image that we can see.

The technique can reveal hidden detail, such as the traces left by a pencil marking a page. The newly revealed pages of the notebook contain a wealth of information about fish, snakes, birds, bats and many others creatures that Wallace collected.

The fish specimens described in the notebook unfortunately all went down with the ship, but Wallace rescued the beautiful pencil sketches he made of them and these are preserved in the Museum’s Wallace archive.

Wallace’s notes about the specimens depicted in his drawings will add considerably to their historical and scientific value.

Forgotten naturalist

Although the loss of the Amazon specimens undoubtedly pushed Wallace's research back, he persevered with his explorations. An expedition to the Malay Archipelago from 1854 to 1862 led him to formulate his own theories about how species emerge and evolve.

'The details of Wallace’s life are currently poorly known in comparison with Darwin’s, yet Wallace is arguably as important a figure in the history of science,' said Museum entomologist and Director of the Wallace Correspondence Project, Dr George Beccaloni.

The project aims to digitise and transcribe the Museum’s large collection of Wallace’s letters and other manuscripts in an effort to understand more about the life and work of the great naturalist, who is often overshadowed by Darwin.

'These unpublished documents provide a wealth of information not present in Wallace’s published writings, including clues about how and why he came to independently devise one of the most important scientific ideas of all time - evolution by natural selection,' said Dr Beccaloni.