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Alfred Russel Wallace : Alfred Wallace : A. R. Wallace :
Russel Wallace : Alfred Russell Wallace (sic)

Letter to T. D. A. Cockerell (S603a: 1903)

Editor Charles H. Smith's Note: A letter on Wallace's early influences he sent to T. D. A. Cockerell by request, included on page 517 of the latter's article "The Making of Biologists" in the April 1903 issue of Popular Science Monthly. To link directly to this page, connect with: http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/wallace/S603A.htm

     As to my interest in biology, I can trace it I think to two very trifling facts. I doubt if I had or have any special aptitude for it, but I have a natural love for classification and an inherent desire to explain things;--also a great love of beauty of form and colour. The two slight facts are these. When a boy at school I heard a Quaker lady say that she and some friend had found the 'Monotropa,' which was quite a discovery as being before unknown in the district. This, and hearing the names of other flowers referred to as rare, made me think it would be very interesting to know the names of all the plants that grew wild,1 but as I had no botanical friends the wish remained dormant, till I was about 15, when I purchased for a shilling (I think) a little book on botany published by the Society for the Diffusion of Christian Knowledge, and which contained the characters of about a dozen of the commonest natural orders in Britain. This was a revelation to me, and kept me employed for a year or two determining the flowers I met with if they belonged to any of these few orders.a I then bought Lindley's 'Elements of Botany,' I think it was, but was disappointed in finding no more 'orders' described, but details of structure which did not much interest me. When recovering from a serious illness I met with Loudon's 'Encyclopædia of Plants,' and finding that this contained brief characters of all British plants, I amused myself by copying them all, except I think the grasses and sedges, on sheets of note paper, which I interleaved in Lindley's volume, and by means of these I was able to determine most of the species I met with, and made a considerable herbarium. The other incident was, meeting H. W. Bates at Leicester and being started by him as a beetle and butterfly collector. The enormous variety of form and structure in the beetles attracted me, and I think during all my tropical experiences the collection of these gave as much enjoyment as even the gorgeous birds and butterflies. Classification then began to fascinate me, through Swainson, and the 'Vestiges of Creation,' with the works of Herbert Spencer, started me on the problem of the origin of species; and thus my various mental tendencies had full occupation in the contemplation and study of natural objects. I also, very early, became interested in geology, in mechanics, in physics and in astronomy, and this breadth of scientific interest, though with no direct education in any one of them, has been of great service to me in preventing a too exclusive attention to any one aspect of nature.

Note Appearing in the Original Work

1. I also heard, to my astonishment, that every minutest weed had been described and had a name. [[on p. 517]]

*                 *                 *                 *                 *

Editor's Note

a. In My Life, written up not very long after this letter was composed, Wallace gives a different chronology for these early events. According to this, the Society for the Diffusion of Christian Knowledge book was actually purchased sometime early in the year 1841, when Wallace was eighteen and working in the Kington area. The Lindley and Loudon works were encountered in the late part of that year, after he and his brother had moved over to the Neath area. Alternately, of course, the My Life chronology is in error, but this seems much less likely.

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