28. Alfred Russell Wallace
Thinkers (313 votes)
1823 – 1913
A uniquely Victorian figure, Alfred Russell Wallace was born at Usk in Monmouthshire. His father’s financial troubles forced him to leave school at 13. He was apprenticed as a surveyor, eventually joining his brother’s firm at Neath.
His interest in scientific matters was developed by membership of the town’s various learned societies. He became curator of the Neath Philosophical and Literary Institute Museum.
After his brother’s untimely death in 1845, Wallace embarked on an expedition to South America to collect specimens from the Amazon. His particular interest was evolution and how organisms developed over long periods.
After four years in Amazonia, seriously illness forced him to return home. His ship caught fire in mid-Atlantic and Wallace spent ten days in an open boat before being rescued. His vast collection of specimens went down with the ship.
His next expedition, to Indonesia, inspired his most important work. There, while struck down by Malaria, Wallace developed the theory of Natural Selection or “survival of the fittest.” He presented his findings in a letter to Charles Darwin, whom he knew was active in the same field.
Wallace’s letter shocked Darwin, who had been independently developing the same theory, although his own work on Natural Selection was still some years from completion. Extracts from the work of both were presented in a paper to the Linnean society in 1858.
Darwin hurriedly completed On the Origin of Species which has come to be regarded as one the most important scientific works ever written. While history has given Darwin the credit for the theory of Natural Selection, contemporaries were aware of Wallace’s pioneering work.
According to the writer and evolutionist Elaine Morgan: “If Darwin had not survived his Beagle voyage, the most influential scientific idea of the last two centuries would have been credited to the Welshman from Usk.”