'Tired of medals': new letters reveal how Alfred Russel Wallace shunned Darwin's fame

From declining royal honour to refusing to sit for a portrait, correspondences show co-discoverer of evolutionary theory avoiding publicity

Darwin’s name is eternally linked to one of the most momentous scientific breakthroughs of all time, while his co-discoverer, Alfred Russel Wallace, who first coined the phrase “origin of species”, has been largely forgotten.

Now a newly revealed archive of Wallace’s letters provides a remarkable insight into how he came to be the underdog of evolutionary theory.

Contrary to claims that Wallace was cheated out of his rightful place in history, a picture emerges of a man with an acute dread of pomp and circumstance, who regarded the honours bestowed on him during his lifetime as something of a nuisance.

In a letter to his editor, James Marchant, Wallace complains that he is “rather tired of medals”, after being awarded almost every prize at the Royal Society’s disposal. He also mentions that he was invited to sit for the artist John Collier, whose masterpiece immortalised Charles Darwin’s image – but immediately turned him down.

“I think it possible I may have declined rather abruptly and perhaps Collier may have felt hurt,” Wallace wrote.

The letters are part of a private collection that also includes hand-written notes for a book, entitled Darwin and Wallace, that the scientist and his editor were working on at the time of Wallace’s death in 1913. The draft outline for the book, which was never written, is going to auction next week.

Dr George Beccaloni, director of the Alfred Russel Wallace Correspondence Project, describes the 24 letters as “fascinating”. “They give a from-the-horse’s mouth account of Wallace’s views,” he said. “They show Wallace wasn’t much of a self-publicist. He missed some very good publicity coups.”

By contrast, Wallace’s editor, Marchant, comes across as a savvy operator, whose plans to secure Wallace’s legacy were continually scuppered by the scientist’s indifference to fame and glory.

The collection also includes a letter dated shortly before Wallace’s death from his son, William, to Marchant, responding to a suggestion that his father should be buried at Westminster Abbey. “Neither my mother nor my father himself would desire it,” William Wallace writes. “We all of us are averse from publicity and unnecessary ceremony.”

Alfred Russel Wallace’s manuscript notes to James Marchant
Alfred Russel Wallace’s manuscript notes to his editor James Marchant about a book he was working on at the time of his death in 1913. Photograph: Dominic Winter Auctioneers

The outline for the manuscript sketches out how Wallace and Darwin managed to arrive at the same discovery, and despite describing them as “co-discoverers”, Wallace consistently refers to “Darwinism”, a term he is thought to have come up with.

Wallace had initially written to Darwin from the remote Indonesian island of Halmahera to share his revolutionary idea. Darwin, who had independently been developing his own theory of evolution for more than a decade, was prompted into action and arranged for both versions to be read to members of the Linnean Society in 1858.

During recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest in Wallace, with the Natural History Museum restoring his portrait to the museum’s main hall and several documentaries highlighting his considerable contributions and, in some cases, pointing the finger of blame at Wallace’s contemporaries for his subsequent decline into obscurity.

“People have endlessly speculated about this,” said Beccaloni. “Some have said that it was the scientific establishment ganging up on Wallace because of his spiritualistic beliefs. I think it was basically his fault.”

Beccaloni points to previously published correspondence in which Wallace mentions that he has been awarded the Order of Merit, one of the highest honours that can bestowed on a civilian. In the letter to a friend Wallace confides that he has declined to attend the ceremony at Buckingham Palace – partly because he does not want to buy a new suit for the occasion. Instead, the King had to send a dignitary to Wallace’s house in Dorset to deliver the medallion.

Sandra Knapp, head of algae, fungi and plants at the Natural History Museum, agreed that the notion Wallace was robbed of his place in history is a myth. “There’s a caricature of these scientists sitting in their room trying to scoop everyone else or being totally socially dysfunctional,” she said. “If people were to look a bit more carefully they’d ask who coined the word Darwinism? Wallace.”

Knapp has welcomed the renewed interest in Wallace’s work. “Wallace was such a character,” she said. “He’s like your grumpy friend down the street who won’t come to any of these functions where they could make friends and influence people.”

And what would Wallace make of recent efforts to restore him to his rightful place in history? “I think he’d be a bit indifferent,” said Beccaloni. “Like being given every single important medal in Britain, he was just a bit exasperated by it.”

  • The Wallace manuscript notes will be auctioned by Dominic Winter Auctioneers near Cirencester on 19 July


Hannah Devlin Science correspondent

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Alfred Russel Wallace, the forgotten man of evolution, gets his moment
Wallace formed the theory of natural selection, but Darwin's connections ensured he got the glory, writes Robin McKie

Robin McKie Science Editor

20, Jan, 2013 @12:06 AM

Article image
Recognition at last for Alfred Russel Wallace, who lived in Darwin's shadow
Victorian naturalist's extensive collection of specimens and papers appear together for first time in online project

Ian Sample

26, Sep, 2012 @11:01 PM

Article image
Darwin Centre opens to the public

Natural History Museum's £78m cocoon will allow the public to watch – and quiz – scientists in action

Rachel Williams

14, Sep, 2009 @3:00 PM

Article image
Treasures of the Darwin Centre

A glimpse inside the Natural History Museum's new Darwin Centre

Maev Kennedy

16, Jul, 2009 @11:05 PM

Article image
Darwin's lost fossils – including a sloth the size of a car – to be made public
Fossils collected by Darwin on his global voyages on the Beagle will be digitally scanned and made available online

Maev Kennedy

06, Apr, 2018 @2:00 PM

Editorial: In praise of ... the Natural History Museum

Editorial: Darwin would have applauded the innovation and research that keeps the museum at the centre of progressive thought


03, Jun, 2008 @11:01 PM

Article image
Making old bones: Joint Mitnor cave reopens with replica fossils
Experts use 3D printing to restore mound of fossilised remains in Devon quarry plundered by thieves in 2015

Maev Kennedy

07, Aug, 2017 @2:43 PM

Article image
Bobby: the gorilla on the wrong side of the law
The western lowland gorilla was smuggled from Africa to Italy in the 1980s. As taxidermy, he is part of a new exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland

Henry Nicholls

28, Nov, 2016 @7:02 AM

Article image
Jurassic squirrel's secret is out after 165m years
Discovery of furry animal with sharp teeth and poisonous spur provides more clues to the evolution of mammals

Ian Sample, science correspondent

07, Aug, 2013 @6:28 PM

Article image
David Attenborough's aquatic ape series for Radio 4 based on 'wishful thinking'
Anatomist and broadcaster Alice Roberts slams Radio 4 programme claiming there is no credible evidence to suggest humans went through an aquatic evolutionary phase

Nicola Davis

16, Sep, 2016 @6:17 PM