Alfred Russel Wallace Collection


Date: 1867-1913 | Size: 0.25 Linear feet


A prime exponent of evolutionary theory in the late nineteenth century, the British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace arrived independently at the theory of natural selection nearly simultaneously with Charles Darwin. The numerous publications that emerged from his extended field excusions into the Amazon Basin and the Malay Archipelago (Indonesia) Wallace resulted in major contributions to evolutionary theory, biogeography, ecology, and ethnography, and made Wallace, by the end of his life, one of the best known naturalists in Britain. A Socialist, social progressive, and Spiritualist, Wallace's distinctive take on evolutionary change differed from the Darwinian mainstream in significant ways. The Wallace Collection is a miscellaneous assemblage of letters written by and to Alfred Russel Wallace, primarily during the last twenty five years of his life. Varied in content, the letters touch on Wallace's views on evolution, Spiritualism, and to a less degree, his progressive social commitments.

Background note

Enshrined as the co-discoverer of the theory of natural selection, Alfred Russel Wallace was a pioneering naturalist whose influence extended beyond evolutionary theory to biogeography, ecology, and sociology. Although his middling social origins and "radical" political and social beliefs limited his acceptance in the fold of elite English science, Wallace's undeniable ingenuity and originality made him an indispensable voice in discussions about natural history during the latter half of the nineteenth century.

Born January 8, 1823, the eighth of nine children of Thomas Vere Wallace and Mary Anne Greenell, Alfred R. Wallace was raised under what might be called modest middle class circumstances, but circumstances that were not untainted by financial hardship. As a result of his father's misfortunes with a swindler, Wallace was forced to withdraw from school at the age of thirteen, leaving home for London to live with his older brother John. Despite the painful events occasioning his departure from home, Wallace profited from his experience in one important way. In London, he fell into the orbit of a group of committed Owenite Socialists, whose heterodox political and social ideas he absorbed and maintained throughout the remainder of his life.

In 1837, Wallace moved to Bedfordshire to live with another brother, William, where he learned surveying and, for a brief time, he was apprenticed to a watchmaker. The basic technical skills he acquired, including mathematics, drafting, geology, and geography, combined with a steady diet of outdoor work whetted Wallace's appetite for natural history, which he nourished by attending lectures at the Mechanics' Institutes in Kington (Hereford) and Neath (Wales). When his brother laid him off from work in 1843, Alfred picked up work as an instructor in drafting, surveying, and arithmetic at the Collegiate School in Leicester, which he put to full advantage. Through the near availability of a suitable library, intensive self-study, and a developing friendship with the entomologist Henry Walter Bates, Wallace gradually strengthened his background in natural history.

As a result of these changes in fortune, when his brother William died, enabling a return to surveying, Alfred was primed to strike out in a different direction. Disinclined to wallow in the mundanities of surveying, he lit instead upon the notion of joining his friend Bates in an expedition up the Amazon to collect specimens and observe. Thus in April 1848, the two men left Pará (now Belém), Brazil, for a journey deep into Amazonia. After two years, Wallace and Bates separated, with Wallace returning to England in 1852 and Bates remaining in South American for nearly a decade longer. By any measure, their expedition was productive: Bates discovered a form of mimicry that still bears his name, while Wallace, already a convinced evolutionist from his reading of Charles Lyell's Principles and Robert Chambers' Vestiges of the Natural Creation, began in earnest what would become a lifelong inquiry into the mechanics of the evolutionary process.

Wallace's plans for a windfall from his expedition came to naught upon his return when a shipboard fire destroyed nearly all of the specimens he had painstakingly acquired in the Amazon. Although covered by insurance, barely, Wallace's plans for establishing a scientific name for himself could not so easily be resurrected. He produced two creditable works from his period in the Amazon -- the ethnobotanical Palm Trees of the Amazon and Their Uses (London, 1853) and A Narrative of Travels on the Amazon and Rio Negro (London, 1853) -- however these made no contribution to evolutionary theory, and had only modest returns for four hard-spent years.

However small, these returns turned out to be crucial. Drawing upon the strength of these publications, Wallace secured a grant from the Royal Geographic Society to undertake a naturalizing expedition to the Malay Archipelago, the site of what would become his most famous work. Arriving in Singapore in April 1854, Wallace spent eight years careering about Indonesia, collecting over 100,000 specimens and one thousand new species. His magnum opus, The Malay Archipelago (London, 1869), enjoyed great success in England as a travel narrative, as ethnographic study, and as a natural historical tour de force.

But more important in the long run, Wallace's Indonesian excursion quickened his thoughts on evolutionary change. Like the Galapagos had for Darwin, the spectacular biotic profusion of Indonesia propelled Wallace's evolutionary rumination, resulting in a seminal paper in the Annals and Magazine of Natural History 16 (1855), "On the Law Which Has Regulated the Introduction of New Species." In this first foray into what would become natural selection, Wallace sketched out an hypothesis for conceiving the spatial and temporal relationships of species, concluding that "every species has come into existence coincident both in time and space with a pre-existing closely allied species." Although Charles Lyell brought the paper to the attention of Darwin, Darwin appears nevertheless to have paid it little, if any attention.

Independently of Darwin, Wallace continued to assemble the theoretical framework of natural selection. As was true for Darwin, Malthusian economics provided a touchstone, propelling Wallace's second major paper on the subject, a draft of which was sent for Darwin's perusal in 1858. This time, Darwin did not fail to notice. The manuscript prodded Darwin into a furious fit of writing, resulting in a mutually agreed-upon simultaneous presentation of their works before the Linnean Society during the summer of 1858, and in 1859, the publication of Darwin's "abstract," On the Origin of Species.

Wallace remained in Indonesia for an additional four years, finally returning to England early in 1862. His publications and the massive collections he had accumulated in the Archipelago brought him a measure of financial comfort and high respect among British naturalists. There remained, however, always something of a distance between Wallace and his peers. While some of this may be attributed to the "inferiority" of Wallace's social origins, he differed even more fundamentally in other ways. Wallace could always be relied upon as a supporter of natural selection and evolutionary theory, but he represented a distinctly different strain.

Already distinguished by his Owenite political preferences, Wallace became further differentiated from the bulk of the Darwin crowd by becoming a convert to Spiritualism in 1866. Like most Spiritualists, he rejected the arch-materialism of Darwin and Huxley, and he never accepted that natural selection operated on the "higher" (spiritual and intellectual) aspects of humanity. Whether Spiritualism led him to these views, or these views led him to Spiritualism is difficult to discern, but the tenor of Wallace's work after 1870 took on a tenor unique among the prominent Darwinists. He was immensely prolific, writing popular and technical works in natural history that made him the best known naturalist in Britain by the end of the century, but he commented increasingly on issues of political and social concern to radicals, emerging as a full-fledged Socialist by the 1880s.

Active mentally and physically, as writer and lecturer, late into his 80s, Wallace died in his sleep at home on November 7, 1913.

Scope and content

The Wallace Collection consists primarily of miscellaneous letters written by and to the English naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace, primarily during the period 1880-1913. An innovative thinker, Wallace's correspondence reflects his strong commitment to evolutionism, to his version of "Darwinism," and to his adopted Spiritualism. Although a significant portion of the collection is comprised of relatively routine correspondence, several letters provide insight into Wallace's perspective on evolutionary change between the 1870s and early 1900s. Among the best of these letters is Wallace's response to the claim of the otherwise unidentified R. Murray (May 2, 1890) that a cat with a "mutilated" tail had produced entirely tailless offspring. Wallace toes a delicate line between remaining open to the possibility of the inheritance of acquired characteristics and simply rejecting that possibility as too difficult to verify. The correspondence also suggests something of the degree to which Wallace was integrated into contemporary scientific networks, particularly a letter to Samuel Scudder (April 12,. 1876) requesting information on tropical entomology and botany; a letter from Alphonse de Candolle, and letters from members of Darwin's circle, including Flower and Hooker. Other letters from Tyndall and Spencer are more social in nature. Throughout his life, Wallace considered himself a loyal, though heterodox Darwinian, concerned as much with the why of evolutionary change as the how (see letter to W. J. Farmer, Dec. 3, 1908). One letter includes a particular direct assessment of the work of Darwin and his alleged reticence in publishing the Origin (August 6, 1908). A writer in the New York Evening Post, he wrote, "misses the point altogether when he compares Darwin with modern scientists who publish their "facts" instantly & benefit by the mass of workers who discover fresh facts. Dawin's work was, essentially, not the finding of any new facts, but of a great new "theory" that coordinated & explained all the facts then known, & all those constantly being discovered. Moreover, it was a wholly unpopular theory, & if it had been made known when he discovered it (in 1838) it would have been overwhelmed under a flood of opposition, prejudice, and ridicule, even from his fellow naturalists. He therefore judged rightly, in keeping back his "theory" from the public, till he had shown how it agreed with so vast a body of known facts." In this same letter, Wallace speculates on James Whitcomb Riley's authorship of "Leonainie," a poem written in imitation of Poe, about which Wallace insists "Riley was not the 'Author,' in the true sense," Poe "almost certainly was." Seventeen of Wallace's letters on this subject were later published in Edgar Allan Poe : A Series of Seventeen Letters... (New York : priv. print., 1930). Spiritualism was a major point of intellectual involvement for Wallace during the last forty years of his life, and several letters in the collection sketch out his interests. That he was not always successful in convincing his peers of the truth of Spiritualism need not be noted. Three letters from the skeptical philosopher and novelist, Samuel Butler (May 22, 24, and 27, 1879), are particularly noteworthy for revealing his colleagues' reaction to Wallace's beliefs, although Wallace had better success with his fellow believer, Epes Sargent (Dec. 13, 1880) and with Archdeacon Colley (Feb. 26, 1907). With Colley, Wallace discussed the reality of materialization séances and rejecting the illusions of the magician and anti-Spiritualist, John Nevil Maskelyne. Wallace also retained his "radical," Socialist political views until the end of his life. Although the collection offers little to flesh out Wallace's politics, several letters provide brief glimpses, particularly the two letters to the Socialist animal rights advocate, Henry Stephens Salt (Sept. 26, 1897 and Jan. 11, 1898), and a nice letter to W. R. Hughes (May 31, 1908) regarding Wallace's article in the Socialist Review. Most revealing, perhaps, is Wallace's list (Jan. 14, 1907) of the "ten chief humanitarians of the nineteenth century": Robert Owen, Leo Tolstoy, Edward Bellamy, Robert Blatchford, Elizabeth Fry, John Ruskin, Shelley, Walt Whitman, William Watson, and Edwin Markham.

Digital objects note

This collection contains digital materials that are available in the APS Digital Library. Links to these materials are provided with context in the inventory of this finding aid. A general listing of digital objects may also be found here.

Collection Information


The Wallace Collection was acquired in a number of accessions, beginning in the mid-1950s. Among these were accession numbers 1995-45ms, 1977-1442ms; 1976-1490ms, 1975-738ms, 1971-77bms, and 1962-2272ms.

Many of the letters were previously catalogued in the Miscellaneous Manuscripts Collection and the Letters of Scientists Collection, and were transferred in March, 2001.

Preferred citation

Cite as: Alfred Russel Wallace Collection, American Philosophical Society.

Processing information

Recatalogued by rsc, 2002.

Related material

The Darwin-Lyell Collection contains 28 letters from Wallace to Lyell, and Wallace is mentioned in approximately half a dozen letters in the Darwin Papers. Other significant letters written by or about Wallace appear in the Eyton, Gulick, Russell, and LeConte Papers.

All of Wallace's major printed works can be found in the APS Printed Materials Department.

Indexing Terms

Geographic Name(s)

  • Brazil

Personal Name(s)

  • Birks, Edward
  • Butler, Samuel, 1835-1902
  • Candolle, Alphonse de, 1806-1893
  • Collins, William Jon, 1859-1946
  • Darwin, Charles, 1809-1882
  • Evans, Edmund, 1826-1905
  • Farmer, W. J.
  • Flower , William Henry, 1831-1899
  • Gladstone, W. E. (William Ewart), 1809-1898
  • Harrison, Benjamin, 1837-1921
  • Harting, James Edmund, 1841-1929
  • Hooker, Joseph Dalton, Sir, 1817-1911
  • Lippitt, Francis James, 1812-1902
  • Maskelyne, John Nevil, 1839-1917
  • Merlons, Hugo
  • Miller, Dewitt, 1857-1911
  • Morley, John, 1838-1923
  • Poe, Edgar Allen, 1809-1849
  • Pontifex, Arthur
  • Riley, James Whitcomb, 1849-1916
  • Salt, Henry Stephens, 1851-1939
  • Sargent, Epes, 1813-1880
  • Scudder, Samuel Hubbard, 1837-1911
  • Spencer, Herbert, 1820-1903
  • Tyndall, John, 1820-1893
  • Wallace, Alfred Russel, 1823-1913


  • Cats
  • Evolution (Biology)
  • Natural history -- Great Britain
  • Natural selection
  • Spiritualism -- Great Britain

Detailed Inventory

 Alfred Russel Wallace Collection
1867-19130.25 lin. feetBox 1
 Tyndall, John, 1820-1893.
To Wallace, Alfred Russel
1867 February 9ALS, 1p.
 Wallace, Alfred Russel, 1823-1913.
To Macmillan Co.
1869 JuneALS, 1p.
 Spencer, Herbert, 1820-1903.
To Wallace, Alfred Russel
1869 October 5ALS, 1p.
 Candolle, Alphonse de, 1806-1893.
To Wallace, Alfred Russel
1870 June 26ALS, 2p.
 Latham, Robert Gordon, 1812-1888.
To Wallace, Alfred Russel
1871 September 23ALS, 1p.
 Flower , William Henry, 1831-1899.
To Wallace, Alfred Russel
1872 January 2ALS, 2p.
 Wallace, Alfred Russel, 1823-1913.
To Flower, William Henry, 1831-1899
1873 January 30ALS, 3p.
 Wallace, Alfred Russel, 1823-1913.
To Hooker, Joseph Dalton, 1817-1911
1873 April 30ALS, 1p.

A.L.S. 1p. Thanks for seeds. Concerning Baron Müller's gift of seeds.

 Wallace, Alfred Russel, 1823-1913.
To Hooker, Joseph Dalton, 1817-1911
1874 April 14ALS, 1p.

A.L.S. 1p. Would appreciate larvae "as I have no Yuccas of a flowering age." Congratulates him on the change of government.

 Wallace, Alfred Russel, 1823-1913.
To Scudder, Samuel Hubbard, 1837-1911
1876 April 12ALS, 4p.
 Morley, John, 1838-1923.
To Wallace, Alfred Russel
1876 February 26ALS, 1p.
 Butler, Samuel, 1835-1902.
To Wallace, Alfred Russel
1879 May 22ALS, 4p.
 Butler, Samuel, 1835-1902.
To Wallace, Alfred Russel
1879 May 24ALS, 4p.
 Butler, Samuel, 1835-1902.
To Wallace, Alfred Russel
1879 May 27ALS, 4p.
 Wallace, Alfred Russel, 1823-1913.
To Sargent, Epes, 1813-1880
1880 December 13ALS, 4p.

Croyden, A.L.S. 4p. Congratulates him on his book on spiritualism and comments on it.

 Wallace, Alfred Russel, 1823-1913.
To Zimmern, Miss
1882 October 13ALS, 2p.
 Wallace, Alfred Russel, 1823-1913.
To Lippitt, Francis James, 1812-1902
1889 June 24Postcard
 Wallace, Alfred Russel, 1823-1913.
To Murray, R.
1890 May 2ALS, 3p.
 Wallace, Alfred Russel, 1823-1913.
To Birks, Edward
1890 February 7ALS, 2p.
 Wallace, Alfred Russel, 1823-1913.
To Evans, Mrs. Edmund
1891 May 27ALS, 2p.
 Wallace, Alfred Russel, 1823-1913.
To Sheomring, W.
1891 September 1ALS, 1p.
 Wallace, Alfred Russel, 1823-1913.
To Harrison, Benjamin, 1837-1921
1891 November 3ALS, 4p.
 Wallace, Alfred Russel, 1823-1913.
To Swann, Sonnenschein & Co.
1892 June 26ALS, 2p.
 Wallace, Alfred Russel, 1823-1913.
To LaTouche, Miss
1895 January 7ALS, 1p.
 Wallace, Alfred Russel, 1823-1913.
To Gladstone, W. E. (William Ewart), 1809-1898
1895 October 22TLS Cy, 2p.
 Wallace, Alfred Russel, 1823-1913.
To Collins, William Jon, 1859-1946
1897 May 12ALS, 3p.
 Wallace, Alfred Russel, 1823-1913.
To Salt, Henry Stephens, 1851-1939
1897 September 26ALS, 2p.
 Wallace, Alfred Russel, 1823-1913.
To Salt, Henry Stephens, 1851-1939
1898 January 11ALS, 2p.
 Wallace, Alfred Russel, 1823-1913.
To Gladstone, W. E. (William Ewart), 1809-1898
1898 February 24TLS Cy, 1p.
 Wallace, Alfred Russel, 1823-1913.
To Harting, [James Edmund], 1841-1929.
1899 January 21ALS, 1p.
 Wallace, Alfred Russel, 1823-1913.
To Pontifex, Arthur
1903 May 18Postcard
 Wallace, Alfred Russel, 1823-1913.
To Evans, Edmund, 1826-1905
1904 April 19ALS, 3p.
 Wallace, Alfred Russel, 1823-1913.
To Girdlestone, Mrs.
1904 September 23ALS, 2p.
 Wallace, Alfred Russel, 1823-1913.
To Smedley, E.
1905 August 27Postcard
 Wallace, Alfred Russel, 1823-1913.
To Robertson, John M.
1906 December 21Postcard
 Wallace, Alfred Russel, 1823-1913.
To Robinson, Victor
1907 January 14ALS, 3p.
 Wallace, Alfred Russel, 1823-1913.
To Colley, Archdeacon
1907 February 26ALS, 7p.
 Wallace, Alfred Russel, 1823-1913.
To Hughes, W. R.
1908 May 31ALS, 3p.
 Wallace, Alfred Russel, 1823-1913.
To Miller, Dewitt, 1857-1911
1908 August 6ALS, 4p.
 Wallace, Alfred Russel, 1823-1913.
To Farmer, W. J.
1908 December 3ALS, 4p.
 Wallace, Alfred Russel, 1823-1913.
To Wayler, John
1909 April 4Postcard
 Wallace, Alfred Russel, 1823-1913.
To Eyles, F. A. H.
1909 June 24ALS, 1p.
 Wallace, Alfred Russel, 1823-1913.
To Farmer, W. J.
1910 February 17ALS, 4p.
 Wallace, Alfred Russel, 1823-1913.
To Harting, [James Edmund], 1841-1929.
1911 September 13ALS, 2p.
 Wallace, Alfred Russel, 1823-1913.
To Merlons, Hugo
1913 January 17ALS, 2p.
 Wallace, Alfred Russel, 1823-1913.
To Symonds, Arthur Gibb, b. 1844
1913 February 22ALS, 3p.