Sunday, 8 June 2014

Alfred Russel Wallace, the Royal Society and the HMS Challenger Expedition (1872-1876)

George Beccaloni of the Natural History Museum and Wallace Fund has published a short post about Wallace's involvement with the famous HMS Challenger science expedition which took place in the 1870s.*

Wallace was sent a copy of the 'deep sea deposits' volume of the Challenger report which was edited by the oceanographer--as opposed to the publisher--John Murray.^

George then discovered that Wallace's involvement with the Challenger expedition went deeper than just personal correspondence with the Challenger project members. He was also appointed as a member of the committee for the expedition back on 21 March 1872. Indeed, as Charles Smith has noted, Nature published a note of his membership of the committee on 31 October 1872.

This was still a period when Wallace was comparatively heavily involved in the scientific societies of the UK (indeed, within a year of being elected to the Challenger committee he was elected to the Council of the newly-founded Anthropological Institute). Wallace still lived close to London before his removal to Dorset which may have influenced his decision to be so involved. However, the 1870s was still a period when Wallace had not developed his slowly evolving critique of the shifting nature and position of the Victorian scientific establishment.

It would be extremely interesting to see the minutes of the Challenger committee meetings which are still held, it seems, at the Royal Society in London. Did Wallace attend them often? Did he involve himself heavily in its decisions? Was he only a member for a short time? These are only really questions that can be answered by rooting through the papers.

Who owns Wallace's copy of the Challenger Report?

Incidentally, if anyone knows who now owns the inscribed copy sent to Wallace by Murray I would be very grateful if you could put us in contact with them. It would be very interesting to see whether we could see whether Wallace included any interesting annotations in the text.

Wallace regularly referenced the Challenger expedition in his works and thus it seems likely that the reports (there were, as George notes, 50 such reports) would have been heavily used by Wallace in his work.


*George has so far managed to discover almost all the people named except the "Dr. Williamson". Williamson in this case was William Crawford Williamson (1816-1895).

^ It was annotated with "Alfred Russel Wallace, Esqr. | With the compliments of the Editor of the Challenger Reports | May 1892." See the sale details on Byass Rare Books here.


  1. The Wallace Correspondence Project only has 5Wallace letters from the Royal Society's archives - which seems like a small number given Wallace's involvement with the Society over many years. I have asked Ruth Benny (the Project's Archivist) to check with them to see if there are any others. Perhaps they are in parts of the Archive which haven't been catalogued down to the level of individual letters.

  2. Yes, it seems like a strong possibility. The fact that he was involved in an official capacity in such a high profile expedition seems likely to have increased the chance of there being more letters somewhere or another. Though I do wonder whether Wallace was involved in the committee for very long or not. His name seems to disappear after the original announcement (or as far as I have found anyway!).

    1. He was on the committee which advised on what scientific work should be conducted during the voyage. The committee published its report and then was presumably redundant as its job was done..

    2. Yes, good point. However, many of the committee members retained a role of some sorts (official or unofficial) in the Challenger expedition after the early committee meetings. It will be interesting to discover if Wallace did the same. The fact that he was remembered by the editorial team is interesting but not conclusive on this. After all, he was famous enough to be remembered for a book without the committee connection. Very exciting that there is a prospect there is more out there!