Letters between Wallace and the Australian conchologist, Charles Hedley, published by Australian Museum

The Australian Museum based in Sydney has put electronic copies of two letters from AR Wallace to the highly respected conchologist, Charles Hedley, on their website.

The letters, one from July and the other from October 1892, are in response to letters and papers that Charles Hedley delivered to Wallace at his home in Parkstone, Dorset. 

The reference in the later letter of October 1892 regarding the enclosure on the Placostylus (a type of air-breathing land snail) as well as the debate surrounding the ‘land-connection’ between New Zealand and Australia makes it highly likely that the enclosure was Hedley’s ‘The Range of Placostylus; a study in ancient geography’ as Hedley refers to Wallace’s Island Life work and the fact that ‘Australia and New Zealand were formerly connected by a bridge of dry land’ within it (pp. 336-7). Wallace also references his The Geographical Distribution of Animals (1876) within the letter. ‘In the second of these letters,’ explained Vanessa Finney, the Manager of Archives and Records at the Museum on their blog, ‘Wallace hotly disputes Hedley’s theory of the range and distribution of [Placostylus].’

The earlier letter from July 1892 is harder to pin-point in regards to which paper Wallace is referencing. Nonetheless, Vanessa Finney clarifies that this letter refers to Hedley’s recently published ‘The Land Molluscan Fauna of British New Guinea.’ In it Wallace mentions the orchids Hedley encountered and expressed a desire to have some samples of the plant as he was ‘pretty interested’ in this field.  Wallace also believes that Hedley’s work ‘agrees, to some extent, with my theory of the cause of the diversity of the flora & fauna of West & East Australia, as given in my Island Life [published in 1881]’

Interestingly, Hedley later published another article in 1893, ‘On the Relation of the Fauna and Flora of Australia to Those of New Zealand’, which may have taken on board some of Wallace’s comments. A quick scan of this article reveals that Hedley once again mentions Wallace’s theory expounded in Island Life and refers again to the ‘profusion of epiphytic orchids’ (p. 189).

Charles Hedley (1862-1926) was, at this time, Assistant in Zoology at the Australian Museum as well as being a Fellow of the Linnean Society in London and New South Wales. Hedley was originally born in Yorkshire and was largely educated in France. However, he moved to New Zealand in 1881, moving onto Queensland in late 1882. 

As Denis Fairfax’s entry for Hedley in the Australian Dictionary of Biography explained, ‘Typical of self-taught nineteenth-century naturalists, Hedley wrote confidently on botany, ethnology and general natural history, as well as conchology.’ Clearly, although not quite as broad an array of interests as Wallace displayed throughout his long life, the two had much ground of common interest over which to debate. It would seem that these letters show a fascinating snippet of this debate.

PS: If any readers discover a digital edition of Hedley’s ‘The Land Molluscan Fauna of British New Guinea’ article that can be linked in this entry, it would be much appreciated.

Mon, 2011-10-17 21:51 -- Anonymous (not verified)

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