The Darwin-Wallace Medal

The Darwin-Wallace Medal of the Linnean Society of London

By George Beccaloni

The two sides of the solid gold Darwin-Wallace medal awarded to Wallace in 1908.
©Wallace Memorial Fund

The Darwin-Wallace medal

To honour his independent discovery of evolution by natural selection, Wallace was awarded with probably every important medal it was possible for a biologist to receive in Britain at that time. These included the Darwin–Wallace and Linnean Gold Medals of the Linnean Society of London; the Copley, Darwin and Royal Medals of the Royal Society (Britain's premier scientific body); and the Order of Merit (awarded by the ruling Monarch as the highest civilian honour of Great Britain). Of these the Darwin-Wallace medal is special, both because it features a portrait of Wallace, and because it was created to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the reading of the Darwin-Wallace paper on natural selection which had taken place at the Linnean Society on the 1st July 1858.

The 1908 celebration

On the 1st July 1908 a grand event, organised by the Linnean Society, commemorated the public reading of the Darwin-Wallace paper. Invitations "..were sent to the Fellows, Foreign Members and Associates, certain distinguished naturalists, every University in the United Kingdom, and Societies publishing on subjects of biology." Wallace himself attended.

"The PRESIDENT, in welcoming the delegates and guests, said:—

We are met together to-day to celebrate what is without doubt the greatest event in the history of our Society since its foundation. Nor is it easy to conceive the possibility in the future of any second revolution of Biological thought so momentous as that which was started 50 years ago by the reading of the joint papers of Mr. Darwin and Dr. Wallace, "On the Tendency of Species to form Varieties; and on the Perpetuation of Varieties and Species by Natural Means of Selection"...

Darwin and Wallace not only freed us from the dogma of Special Creation, a dogma which we now find it difficult to conceive of as once seriously held "Nec deus intersit, nisi dignus vindice nodus,"—they afforded a natural explanation of the marvellous indications of Design which had been the great strength of the old doctrine..."

At the ceremony seven prominent biologists of the day were presented with the newly created Darwin-Wallace medal. Wallace was awarded with the only gold version of the medal ever made, whilst the other six received silver versions.

"In presenting the gold medal the President said:-

Dr. ALFRED RUSSEL WALLACE, We rejoice that we are so happy as to have with us to-day the survivor of the two great naturalists whose crowning work we are here to commemorate.

Your brilliant work, in Natural History and Geography, and as one of the founders of the Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection, is universally honoured and has often received public recognition, as in the awards of the Darwin and Royal Medals of the Royal Society, and of our own Medal in 1892.

To-day, in asking you to accept the first Darwin-Wallace Medal, we are offering you of your own, for it is you, equally with your great colleague, who created the occasion which we celebrate."

The publication from which the above quotes are taken can be read here.

Recipients of the medal

Silver versions of the Darwin-Wallace medal were awarded to six evolutionary biologists on the 1st July 1908 and to 20 recipients on the 1st July 1958 to commemorate the 50th and 100th anniversaries of the reading of the Darwin-Wallace paper respectively. The 1908 version of the medal has the marginal inscription "LINN: SOC: LOND: 1858 - 1908" on both sides, whilst the 1958 version has "LINN: SOC: LOND: 1858 - 1958" instead.

The medal was not awarded on the 150th anniversary of the reading of the papers on 1st July 2008, as the Linnean Society decided to break with tradition and instead award it (to 13 recipients) on 12th February 2009, Darwin's 200th birthday. From 2010 the Society has awarded the medal annually in May to just a single evolutionary biologist. For a list of recipients of the medal see Wikipedia. The marginal inscription on the medal now reads "LINN: SOC: LOND: 1 JULY 1858" (see an image HERE).

History of the medal

The Darwin-Wallace medal was designed in 1906 by the well known medal maker Frank Bowcher (1864-1938) and the portrait of Wallace he sculpted is known to have been based on a photograph of Wallace. The image he used was probably the one below, judging by details of Wallace's hair (to see all known photos of Wallace click here). It is curious that he decided to omit Wallace's glasses.

Wallace photographed in 1902.
© Scan by A. R. Wallace Memorial Fund & G. W. Beccaloni.

All of the Darwin-Wallace medals awarded by the Linnean Society have been silver, apart from Wallace's unique gold one. Curiously bronze copies of the 1908 and 1958 medals occasionally turn up for sale and I have discovered that these are replicas which were sold by the Linnean Society (in 1959 the Society was selling them for 35s each).

A bronze copy of the 1908 Darwin-Wallace medal. Copyright G. W. Beccaloni

A bronze copy of the 1958 Darwin-Wallace medal. Copyright Tim Millett.

Interestingly, the British Museum have a "plaster model for the obverse of the Linnean Society's Darwin-Wallace medal, showing the "Bust of Alfred Russell [sic] Wallace to front... Diameter 174 mm, thickness 16 mm", which they purchased in 2004. This was probably the original from which the medal was made, using a machine to cut a scaled-down master of the medal, from which a mould could then be made (the medal is 48mm in diameter).

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