“In all works on Natural History, we constantly find details of the marvellous adaptation of animals to their food, their habits, and the localities in which they are found.”
– A.R. Wallace
2023 marks a number of important anniversaries in the UK: it has been 75 years since the founding of the NHS and the arrival of the Empire Windrush in London, and 100 years since the first outside broadcast by the British Broadcasting Company. Importantly for the Museum, it is also the 200th anniversary of the birth of Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913), the trailblazing biologist, geographer, explorer, and naturalist.
Wallace was one of the leading evolutionary thinkers of the nineteenth century and is most well-known for independently developing the theory of natural selection simultaneously with Charles Darwin. The publication of Wallace’s paper “On the Tendency of Varieties of Depart Indefinitely from the Original Type” in 1858 prompted Darwin to quickly publish On the Origin of Species the following year. He was a pioneer in the field of zoogeography and was considered the leading expert of his time on the geographical distribution of animal species. He was also one of the first scientists to write a serious exploration of the possibility of life on other planets.
Wallace undertook extensive fieldwork in the Amazon River basin and the Malay Archipelago. He spent four years in the Amazon from 1848-52 but unfortunately lost much of his collection when the ship he returned to Britain on caught fire. Afterwards, he spent eight years in the Malay Archipelago (1854-62), building up a collection of 125,660 specimens including 109,700 insects, many of which are currently housed at Oxford University Museum of Natural History. In fact, we now hold one of the largest collections of Wallace specimens in the country.
In addition to entomological specimens, OUMNH holds a large and varied archival collection relating to Wallace. The archive includes original insect illustrations sent to Wallace by contemporary entomologists, photographs, and even obituaries. By far the largest portion of the collection is 295 letters of correspondence, of which 285 were penned by Wallace himself. The bulk of Wallace’s letters were written to fellow scientists, including the chemist and naturalist Raphael Meldola and the evolutionary biologist Edward Bagnall Poulton.
We are happy to announce that, in celebration of Wallace’s 200th year, we are making the entire Wallace correspondence available to browse online!
Several of the letters in the collection can be connected to the Wallace entomological collections held at OUMNH, providing us with invaluable insights into the history of these specimens. For example, you can read this 1896 letter from Wallace to Poulton in which Wallace discusses the changing of hands of his entomological collections, from Samuel Stevens to Edmond Higgins following Stevens’ retirement in 1867. The Museum subsequently acquired some of Wallace’s entomological specimens through Edmond Higgins, including the two beautiful examples shown above.
These letters are a potential treasure trove of information about Wallace and his collections, and we hope they will be of great interest to researchers in the field, as well as to the public. Interested? Learn more about Alfred Russel Wallace or explore his archive online.
Article by Matthew Barton, Digital Archivist at OUMNH