6 July 2008

Last week a three page essay about Wallace and the discovery of natural selection was published in Nature by Andrew Berry and Janet Browne (both from Harvard University)  - read it here or see http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v453/n7199/full/4531188a.html. Although this is a wonderful timely tribute to Wallace I have to disagree with their analysis of when and why Wallace was overshadowed by Darwin. They write: "Step by step, Darwin’s star brightened as Wallace’s faded. By the time Darwin died, he was held to be “first among the scientific men of England”, as the socialist writer Edward Aveling put it. Darwin’s name was inextricably linked with the idea of evolution and with broader shifts in public opinion that swept through the nineteenth century. Wallace never acquired Darwin’s celebrity status. Unlike Darwin, he was not buried in Westminster Abbey, although a wall medallion was unveiled there in 1915, two years after his death. None of his houses became a museum. Images of Wallace did not appear in any of the satires or cartoons of evolution. Nor did Wallace have the evocative connection that Darwin did to the Galapagos Islands. His manuscripts were not published, and his library was not preserved....A portrait of Darwin was commissioned in 1881 by the Linnean Society from the artist John Collier, and copied for the National Portrait Gallery, the Royal Society and the Darwin Museum at Down House. By contrast, the portrait of Wallace that hangs in the Linnean Society was not painted until 1998."

They don't seem to realise (or possibly accept) that Wallace was one of the most famous people in the world at the time of his death in 1913: a point established by Charles Smith who has almost certainly read more obituaries and contemporary articles about Wallace than anyone else (click here for more details).  To read a few of these click here. Wallace was obviously not as famous as Darwin, but he was extremely famous nevertheless. It was widely known by the public and scientists alike that he was the co-discoverer of natural selection, despite his best attempts to give most of the credit to Darwin! Since he was so famous this begs the question of why he has slipped into relative obscurity - a question I have tried to answer here: http://wallacefund.info/faqs-myths-misconceptions

Berry and Browne discuss the apparent lack of memorials etc to Wallace in order to back up their claim that Wallace was not a superstar like Darwin. Is this true? Well not exactly. Whilst they are obviously correct in saying that he was not buried at Westminster Abbey, Wallace's friend Marchant (1916) recounts that after his death "It was suggested that he should be buried in Westminster Abbey, beside Charles Darwin, but Mrs. Wallace and the family, expressing his own wishes as well as theirs, did not desire it." No, none of Wallace's houses did become a museum, but Down House did not become a museum until 45 years after Darwin's death, so this does not prove much (I would like The Dell in Grays, Essex made into a museum and all it would take would be one Wallace fan with a lot of drive or a lot of money). True, Wallace does not have an "evocative connection....to the Galapagos Islands." but he never went there! He certainly does have an evocative connection, however, to the islands of the Malay Archipelago as Joseph Conrad and others would have testified (The Malay Archipelago was Conrad's favorite bedside reading). So what about their point that his library was not preserved? Actually, most of it was - the biological books (many with Wallace's annotations), were given to the Linnean Society, his books relating to Spiritualism were given to the Hope Library in Oxford (who recently gave them to the University of Edinburgh Library), and Wallace's personal copies of books he had written were kept by his family until they were sold to the Natural History Museum, London in 2002. OK then, what about the seeming lack of a grand oil painting to commemorate Wallace? Actually, one was commissioned by the Wallace Memorial Committee after Wallace's death and it was unveiled at the Natural History Museum on the 23rd June 1923 (see http://wallacefund.info/paintings-and-sculptures). It hung in Central Hall of the Museum until 1971 - a far grander and more public venue then the rooms of the Linnean Society!

Soon after Wallace's death a Memorial Fund was set up (see http://wallacefund.info/original-memorial-fund) with the purpose of raising money to pay for the following memorials: a medallion featuring Wallace for Westminster Abbey; a portrait of him; and a statue of him for The Natural History Museum, London. In the event, the statue wasn't produced - probably due to people's minds being on other things because of World War 1. A bronze medallion featuring a portrait of Wallace was, however, made and this was donated by the Fund to the Linnean Society in 1916 (see http://wallacefund.info/paintings-and-sculptures). Lots of Wallace's possessions were given to various societies and institutions after Wallace's death by his children - see http://wallacefund.info/wallace-artifacts-uk-institutions-and-societies - in a similar way that lots of Darwin's possessions were kept by his family after his death and eventually ended up in Down house when it was turned into a museum.

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