Wallace in his own words

Sir David Attenborough in the Museum with a Wallace letter
Sir David Attenborough in the Museum with a Wallace letter

Here in the Museum of Natural History’s archives, we proudly house over 300 of Alfred Russel Wallace’s documents. Letters, notes and postcards written by the great naturalist himself. Here you can see Sir David Attenborough holding one of his favourites.

Over the past two years, all of the Wallace paper items in our collection have been scanned, transcribed and uploaded to Wallace Letters Online, a worldwide documentation project that’s part of the Wallace 100 celebrations. But the most remarkable thing is that all this work was done by one woman!

Annette Lord
Annette Lord

Annette Lord has been a volunteer at the Museum for 3 years and has helped with many family friendly activities, but one day she popped up to the Entomology Department to ask about Wallace’s letters. Her curiosity was piqued and she soon set to work on the enormous task of making them accessible to Wallace fans across the world.

The bulk of the letters are from Wallace to Edward Bagnall Poulton, the Hope Professor of Zoology, based at the Museum. Wallace sent Poulton specimens that he collected on his travels and they were good friends, sharing advice and anecdotes. Annette told me about one of the most memorable letters, which revealed Wallace gave Paulton some tips on setting up a display on mimicry in the Museum. In return, Wallace asked for tips on the best microscope to buy for his young daughter Violet… sadly, before he could decide on the final choice, Violet decided she didn’t want a microscope after all!

Wallace signatureAnnette said that she has found the project incredibly satisfying; “It’s given me a real insight into what he was like – I’ve seen his human side and his excellent sense of humour”. She also praised his lovely handwriting, which she’s found relatively easy to read for the transcripts. As part of the project, Annette has given talks in Bournemouth and here in Oxford, where I’m sure her enthusiasm and knowledge help to spread the love of Wallace.

I also spoke to Kate Santry, Head of Archival Collections, who was singing her praises; “Annette’s enthusiasm for the project is un-shakable. Every time you think she must have had enough of reading Wallace’s letters, she’s still right in there in the thick of it. She really has become one of the Museum’s greatest Wallace experts! The material that Annette has recorded gives us an invaluable glimpse into the close relationships between the early natural scientists.”

Tomorrow, to mark the centenary of Wallace’s death, I’ll reveal Annette’s favourite letter of all!

Rachel Parle, Education Officer

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