By Keri Murrell
Most notably known for his contributions to discovering natural selection with Darwin. Alfred Russel Wallace was an explorer, teacher and a collector. His passions commenced whilst teaching at Collegiate School, Leicester in 1844.
At Collegiate School he met Henry Bates, a naturalist who shared his love of collecting. Subsequently, inspired by a book, the ‘Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation’, Wallace and Bates sailed to Pará, Brazil in 1848. They aimed to investigate the origin of the species. Concurrently, they collected and sold specimens. After four years, Wallace left for England. Unfortunately, the ship caught fire in the Atlantic and sank, along with Wallace’s field notes and 4500 specimens. A passing ship rescued the survivors. Not discouraged, Wallace sailed to the Malay Archipelago (Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia) in 1854. In the following eight years, he collected 110,000 insects, 7,500 shells, 8050 bird skins and 410 mammal and reptiles. 5,000 species were new to Western Science. One included the Wallace’s Golden Birdwing Butterfly (Orinthoptera croesus). Whilst there, Wallace noticed a boundary (Wallace Line) which separates the animal ecozones between the Asian and Australian regions.
Working with Darwin
Additionally, in 1858, whilst confined to his bed due to malaria, Wallace came up with the theory of natural selection in which organisms pass on their advantageous qualities to their offspring, due to improved survival. He wrote his hypothesis to Charles Darwin, who had been working on the theory for 20 years. Following this, friends of Darwin presented to the Linnean Society a summary of Darwin’s and Wallace’s work. The following year, Darwin published the ‘Origin of the Species’, becoming the Father of Evolution overshadowing Wallace. Yet, communications continued between the two, becoming good friends with continued discussions on the theory.
Four years after returning to England in 1862, he married Annie Mitten. The subsequent years he spent popularising the theory of natural selection, writing many publications. Aged 79, Wallace moved to ‘The Old Orchard’ in 1902, four miles away from Broadstone. Developed by six people, the BNSS formed in 1903. Its first Honorary Member being Wallace. Although, records state he didn’t participate in activities. Instead he proposed his son William, to be the Society’s first curator. Moreover, one of his specimens, the Sumatran Rhinoceros (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis) molar is still currently in the museum. Wallace, on 7th November 1993, died in his bed. Buried in Broadstone Cemetery to respect his wishes, his family declined a burial at Westminster Abbey. Over the grave is a fossilised tree trunk. Similarly, ‘Old Orchard’ was endowed with a ‘Wallace lived here’ plaque. Following its demolishment, the sign was donated to the BNSS.