A few days ago the site Wallace Correspondence Project (WCP) was launched. It aims to collect in digital format the letters still existent written to and from the naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace. This project has been funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and is based at the Natural History Museum in London. This initiative follows Wallace Online, another website directed by John van Wyhe, assisted by Kees Rookmaaker at the National University of Singapore in collaboration with the Wallace Page by Charles H. Smith, which collects the naturalist’s books and articles.
Born January 8, 1823 in the village of Llanbadoc, near the town of Usk in Wales from an impoverished family, Alfred Russel Wallace had to leave school because his father couldn’t pay for his education.
Alfred Russel Wallace did various jobs to earn some money and read many books to complete his education on his own. In 1848 he left with entomologist Henry W. Bates to the Amazon, where he remained for about four years. To earn some money he collected specimens of local animals to sell them in London, where they were sent.
It was during those years that Alfred Russel Wallace made the observations that inspired the idea of evolution. Unfortunately, on the way back to England, because of a shipwreck he lost almost all his notes and the specimens he was carrying with him and in 1854 he left again, this time for the Indo-Malay Archipelago, where he remained for eight years.
In Borneo, Alfred Russel Wallace wrote the essay “On the law which has regulated the introduction of new species”, in which he explained his ideas about evolution. A few years later, Wallace realized that natural selection could be the mechanism at the base of evolution and wrote an article he sent to Charles Darwin.
On July 1, 1858 Alfred Russel Wallace’s article was read publicly together with an extract from Charles Darwin’s writings and that encouraged him to publish his essay “The Origin of Species”. In fact, Darwin was impressed by the similarities between his ideas and Wallace’s.
In 1869, Alfred Russel Wallace published his essay “The Malay Archipelago”, the chronicle of his research in Southeast Asia. Wallace had financial problems and published other articles to earn some money. With the help of Charles Darwin, in 1881 he was given a pension for his contributions to science. Wallace died on November 7, 1913.
Alfred Russel Wallace had the idea of evolution independently from Charles Darwin and between the two scientists there was always respect. The dispute over who first developed that idea is relatively recent, perhaps also due to the fact that “The Origin of Species” became in time more important than Wallace’s works.
Today we can see online Alfred Russel Wallace’s works and finally more than 4,000 letters not only on scientific but also social subjects. This project should finally allow us to fully understand Wallace’s ideas.