Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913)
The Museum's skin collection includes thousands of specimens from Alfred Russel Wallace's famous Malay Archipelago expeditions, as well as specimens from his sometimes forgotten Amazon expedition.
Alfred Russel Wallace's legacy is frequently overshadowed by Darwin's achievements. However, at the time of his death he was extremely well-known, and his contributions to the developing theory of evolution by natural selection have been widely acknowledged over the past decade .
Wallace spent many years travelling and collecting, both in the Amazon basin between 1848 and 1852 and across the Malay Archipelago (now Malaysia and Indonesia) from 1854 to 1862.
He collected more than 100,000 specimens, mainly birds, beetles and butterflies, which resulted in a huge contribution to scientific knowledge and also to the collections of the Natural History Museum.
The majority of Wallace’s collection from the Amazon Basin was sadly lost when the ship he was travelling on sank in the Atlantic on his return voyage in 1852. Only a relatively small number of specimens previously dispatched back to Britain survived. Many of these were purchased by the Museum in 1851.
By contrast, thousands of specimens survive from the Malay Archipelago expeditions. Wallace was collecting commercially, shipping specimens back regularly to his agent Samuel Stevens in London who sold them on his behalf. The Museum made regular purchases of bird specimens between 1857 and 1865, amounting to about 900 specimens.
Wallace’s material was also sold to private collectors such as John Gould and Frederick Godman. Eventually, much of this material was also acquired by the Museum.
Assembling the collection
The Bird Group is currently studying the large proportion of Wallace’s bird specimens from Sarawak that are housed at the Museum. We are relating them to Wallace’s original field notebooks for the trip, which we also hold in the Museum's extensive library.
Wallace also kept a personal collection of about 2,500 bird specimens which he sold to the Museum in 1873.
More than 100 type specimens were recorded among this single collection, reflecting the enormous contribution Wallace made to ornithological discovery.
The specimens in this collection are often some of the best examples of a species collected by Wallace, carefully selected by him and set aside by his agent to await the traveller’s return.
However, the full extent of Wallace's bird collection is unknown, since many specimens arrived at the Museum via other collections and are therefore catalogued separately. As we continue to digitise the entire skin collection, the full scale of Wallace’s already remarkable efforts will be gradually revealed.