Wallace, The ScientistΒΆ

In 1848, following numerous poor investments and failed business ventures, the 25 year old Alfred Russell Wallace set out aboard the Mischief for Brazil. His plan was to document the geography, flora, fauna and people of South America, collecting evidence for the transmutation of species as well as animal specimens which could be sold to collectors back in the United Kingdom. However, on the return journey four years later, the ship caught fire and the majority of his notes and specimens were lost. Undaunted he spent the following eight years doing the same around the island of South East Asia, ultimately collecting over 126,000 specimens and documenting several thousand new species.

During this expedition, sick with fever on the island of Ternate, Wallace was struck with an idea; the mechanism by which the transmutation of species occurred. Wallace composed his ideas in a letter to Charles Darwin who immediately recognized the contents as identical to his own work on natural selection. Concerned that he would miss out, Darwin and his friends arranged for a presentation of both Darwin’s and Wallace’s idea to the Royal Society as soon as possible. Although this went ahead without Wallace’s presence or knowledge (he was still in South East Asia), he later expressed his happiness at being included at all.

Publishing alongside Darwin gave Wallace considerable fame during his lifetime and the efforts of Darwin and his friends allowed Wallace free access to the scientific community. However, following a further series of bad investments Wallace again faced an uncertain future, which stabilized after Darwin lobbied successfully for him to receive a government pension for lifetime contributions to science. Today, Wallace’s legacy can be seen in the Wallace Line, the Wallace Effect and Wallace, a platform for conducting research on experimental cultural evolution.