Alfred Russel Wallace (1823 -1913)
Early in 1844 two young men, Alfred Russel Wallace and Henry Walter Bates, met in the library of the Leicester Mechanics’ Institute. This chance meeting was one of the turning points in our understanding of the natural world.
Wallace had just started as an assistant teacher at the Collegiate School (now The Rowans on College Street), and had previously been working with his elder brother as a surveyor in Neath, Wales. Bates was from a family of Leicester hosiers, and he had just been apprenticed to the trade. The two found that they shared an interest and curiosity about the natural world. Wallace’s time in Leicester came to an end in 1845 when his elder brother died unexpectedly and he left to take over the family surveying business.
Wallace and Bates kept in touch, and, inspired by the writings of naturalists such as Charles Darwin, they started planning an expedition to Brazil. In April 1848 they left for Pará (known today as Belém) near the mouths of the River Amazon. Wallace returned to England in 1852, barely escaping with his life when his ship caught fire and sank. Meanwhile, Bates stayed in Brazil for 11 years, discovering what is now known as Batesian mimicry. He realised that some harmless butterflies had become adapted to mimic the colouration of poisonous butterflies, and so were less likely to be eaten by birds which had learned to avoid the poisonous ones.
In 1854 Wallace set out again, this time to Indonesia. In 1858 he came up with a theory to explain the origin or evolution of species through a process of natural selection. He had been mulling over the essays of political economist Robert Malthus on human population growth, which he had read in the library in Leicester, whilst recovering from an attack of malaria. He realised that Malthus’ principles could be applied to the natural world, and provided a mechanism for the evolution of new species. Wallace wrote to Darwin outlining his new idea. Darwin had been secretly working on an identical theory for the previous twenty years, and Wallace’s letter pushed him into finally making his ideas public. Short papers from both men were presented at the Linnaean Society of London in 1858 and Darwin published his book “On The Origin of Species” in 1859. Darwin and Wallace’s theory changed our understanding of the history of life on Earth.
Wallace later said that “my year spent in Leicester must, therefore, be considered as perhaps the most important in my early life”. He died in 1913 in Broadstone, Dorset; his grave in the local cemetery being marked by a large fossil tree trunk. Wallace and Bates’ Leicester connections are celebrated in a plaque at New Walk Museum and Art Gallery.