Alfred Russel Wallace’s Letters Online

January 26, 2013

Back in the summer of 2011, I posted a note here about the anniversary of the first presentation of the theory of evolution by natural selection, made to the Linnean Society of London on July 1, 1858.   That initial presentation was a composite of work by Charles Darwin, author of On the Origin  of Species by Means of Natural Selection, published in 1859,  and Alfred Russel Wallace, a young English naturalist, working in Malaysia, who wrote to Darwin in June, 1858, enclosing a short paper in which he outlined essentially the same theory as Darwin’s.  Darwin consulted the geologist Charles Lyell, and the botanist Joseph Hooker; they arranged for the composite paper to be presented, along their letter explaining the circumstances of the parallel development by Darwin and Wallace.

Although Wallace was well known during his lifetime, and received the Copley Medal from the Royal Society, in 1908 his work on developing the theory was to a considerable extent forgotten following his death in 1913.

Now, according to an article at Ars Technica, the Natural History Museum in London has put together a new Web site, Wallace Letters Online, that contains a digital archive of more than 4,000 of Wallace’s letters; his correspondents include many well-known names from 19th century science:

Wallace’s correspondents read like a “Who’s Who” of 19th century science and society, Charles Darwin, Thomas Henry Huxley, Joseph Dalton Hooker and Gertrude Jekyll, to name just a few.

The site is part of a larger project at the museum, Wallace 100, marking the centenary of Wallace’s death.  The project also includes a series of events throughout the year, sponsored by the museum and partner institutions.

As both Darwin and Wallace anticipated, the theory of evolution by natural selection was quite controversial when it was proposed.  Darwin ended up primarily being associated with the theory, probably because he was more directly connected with some of the controversy, and Wallace’s contribution was neglected.  It’s good to see that his work is being recognized.

Update Sunday,  27 January, 14:30 EST

The New Scientist has an imaginary “interview” with Wallace, with the answers taken from his letters.

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