Shipwrecked Wallace

Jerry Coyne has a guest post today by Andrew Berry, who recounts an episode in the early life of Alfred Russel Wallace: “The most poignant episode in all of the history of science”.

When the danger appeared past I began to feel the greatness of my loss. With what pleasure had I looked upon every rare and curious insect I had added to my collection! How many times, when almost overcome by the ague, had I crawled into the forest and been rewarded by some unknown and beautiful species! How many places, which no European foot but my own had trodden, would have been recalled to my memory by the rare birds and insects they had furnished to my collection! How many weary days and weeks had I passed, upheld only by the fond hope of bringing home many new and beautiful forms from these wild regions which would prove that I had not wasted the advantage I had enjoyed, and would give me occupation and amusement for many years to come! And now I had not one specimen to illustrate the unknown lands I had trod, or to call back the recollection of the wild scenes I had beheld! But such regrets were vain and I tried to occupy myself with the state of things which actually existed.

It’s a tremendous story in the history of science, illustrates the difficulties faced by nineteenth-century naturalists as they explored the tropics for new biological knowledge, and reminds us how lucky we are to be able to back up our data as we work.