Alfred Russel Wallace, (1823-1913)




Alfred Russel Wallace was born at Usk, Monmouthshire. He was the eighth of nine children of Thomas and Mary Wallace, a middle-class English couple of modest means. Thomas was of Scottish descent (reputedly of a line leading back to the famous William Wallace). His ancestors also included a former Mayor of Hertford, and it was probably this connection that brought the family to the area. The young Alfred joined the School in 1828. His autobiography My Life records his childhood at the School and in the town as being happy, but at times difficult for lack of money. Four of his five older sisters died before the age of twenty-two, and Wallace himself was not always in the best of health.While at school, fortunately, he had access to plenty of good reading materials, his father being a town librarian for some years. In about 1835 the elder Wallace was swindled out of his remaining property and the family fell on hard times; young Wallace was forced to withdraw from school around Christmas 1836 and was sent to live in London with his older brother John. In 1837 he became a land surveyor in Bedford, in the firm of his oldest brother William. In 1845 William died unexpectedly and Wallace soon found that, even with the help of John, he was not interested in running the business. Since leaving school Wallace had become more and more accomplished as an amateur naturalist, so he decided to turn professional and launch a self-sustaining natural history collecting expedition to South America. His friend Henry Bates, who was by now a skilled entomologist, was enlisted and the two young men left for the Amazon, in April 1848.In four years Wallace collected the astonishing total of 125,660 specimens, including more than a thousand species new to science. Tragically the collection was destroyed by fire on the return voyage, and for ten days Wallace and his comrades struggled to survive in a pair of badly leaking lifeboats. Undaunted he resumed his explorations in 1852, and for eight years travelled in the Malay Archipelago. The book he later wrote describing his work and experiences there, The Malay Archipelago, is the most celebrated of all writings on Indonesia, and ranks with a small handful of other works as one of the nineteenth century’s best scientific travel books. It was this book which inspired David Attenborough to go in search of Wallace’s Birds of Paradise, a quest he filmed for television. It was in the Archipelago that Wallace developed a theory about the causes of the development of life, and he wrote to Charles Darwin about his ideas. His letter, together with a paper by Darwin, was read at a meeting of the Linnaean Society in 1859. These were the forerunners of further writings by the two great naturalists, which brought about such a change in humanity’s views on the origins of species and evolution of life.

Wallace had other serious interests, some of them controversial: land nationalization, a vehement opposition to vaccinations and a belief in spiritualism. His belief may have been influenced by the untimely death of his eldest child; like many others, Wallace hoped to communicate with his lost loved one through a medium. His belief in spiritualism caused Wallace to differ with Darwin on the origin of the human mind. Darwin saw humans as highly evolved organisms; Wallace believed that the human mind was inspired by something outside evolution, and that the human spirit could continue to progress after death. His writings on land nationalization feature many ideas in advance of their time, including suggestions for the legislated protection of rural lands and historical monuments, the construction of greenbelts and parks, and arguments for suburban and rural re-population and organization. In1883 he argued that the State should, over the long-term, buy out large land holdings and then institute an elaborate rental system.

Wallace also took up the cause of the labour movement. He was an early advocate of overtime pay rates, and in 1885 even argued for a minimum wage, but was against strikes: instead, he argued that employees should donate a portion of their pay to funds that could later be used to effect company buy-outs. Eventually he endorsed socialism which he viewed as a means whereby the average person might obtain a certain basic and acceptable standard of living; freedom from worrying over basics would then allow a person’s attention to turn to moral self-improvement. His motto became equality of opportunity, a plea for social justice. He was an early supporter of women’s suffrage, and was much admired by the members of the women’s movement for his unqualified stand on the matter. He also spoke out on many occasions against contemporary attitudes to eugenics, poverty, militarism, imperialism, and institutional punishment. Although personally shy and self-effacing Wallace thrived on public debate and was much in demand as a public speaker. He also had a solid reputation as a writer and reviewer, and for all his radicalism he was generally regarded by his peers as one of the period’s greatest scientific reasoners.

By the turn of the twentieth century, he was very probably Britain’s best known naturalist, and by the end of his life (based on contemporary evidence) Alfred Wallace was one of the most recognized names in the world. His accomplishments were remarkable. He assembled vast plant and animal collections, many of his discoveries completely new to science. He wrote more than 20 books, and roughly 700 articles and published letters, his final two books being published in the year of his death. He remained active into his ninety-first year, happily working in garden and greenhouse in retirement. He died in his sleep at Broadstone, Dorset on 7 November 1913. He was buried nearby but in 1915 a medallion bearing his name was placed in Westminster Abbey.

The most eminent of the School’s Old Boys (with currently more than 4,500 related internet sites), Wallace was a highly distinguished writer, traveller, naturalist and man of science. He shunned but was nevertheless awarded many honours for his scientific work, the crowning ones being membership of the Royal Society in 1893 and the Order of Merit in 1898. He keenly understood the role of competition in nature, but maintained throughout his life that cooperation and universal education were the surest paths to human achievement.

N.B. The above information is drawn largely from “The Alfred Russel Wallace Page” at http://www.wku.edu/~smithch/index1.htm