Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace are credited for co-discovering evolution by natural selection in early 1858. But on one morning back in the summer of 1852, as Wallace had just finished his breakfast, evolution nearly went up in smoke.
Wallace was on a ship in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, relaxing in his cabin, when the captain strolled in and announced, perhaps too calmly: “I am afraid the ship's on fire. Come and see what you think of it."
Within a few hours, the vessel was on its side, engulfed in flames. Sitting in a small lifeboat 1,100 kilometers from land, with minimal supplies, Wallace almost fell victim to the very process he would later uncover — what we would today call survival of the fittest.
Thankfully, after ten days, Wallace was rescued by the Jordeson, a brig running between the West Indies and London. On arriving back home, he was overjoyed, writing to a friend: “Oh! Glorious day! … Beef steaks and damson tart, a paradise for hungry sinners.”
This episode is just one of many to emerge from Wallace Letters Online, launched today on the website of the Natural History Museum in London. It is a project funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation based in New York City to track down and digitize Wallace’s correspondence.
So far, the open-access database contains nearly 4,000 letters sent to and from the famous naturalist, or about 95% of his known surviving correspondence. The database is fully searchable and includes transcripts as well as scans of many of the letters. The launch of this database is part of Wallace100, a series of events celebrating Wallace’s life and work during the centenary of his death.
Darwin is so strongly associated with natural selection that Wallace is sometimes forgotten. However, with the launch of this database, scientists and historians can better understand the personal and scientific relationship between these two men. “This is the first time that all of the Darwin and Wallace correspondence has been published in full,” says George Beccaloni, director of the project.
Shortly after the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859, scientific debate turned to the problem of animal coloration: could natural selection explain the bright pigments observed in so many species? “It was the test case of the new theory,” says Beccaloni.
Letters in the database address this, as well as topics as diverse as biogeography, socialism and phrenology. Currently, 60% of the letters have viewable images and 36% have transcripts. Over the next three years, the Natural History Museum intends to complete the transcripts, hiring two professional historians to produce scholarly annotations. “The hope is that Wallace Letters Online will lead to a renaissance in research about Wallace,” says Beccaloni.
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Caffeine For Imprisoned Twins
In the late 18th century, King Gustavus III of Sweden was rumored to have carried out a strange experiment to determine the harmful health effects of coffee. Two identical twins who had been condemned to death had their sentences commuted to life in prison on the condition that one would drink three pots of coffee per day, and the other three pots of tea, for the rest of their lives. The only problem was that the doctors assigned to monitor the cases died before either of the patients did, their observations lost--as the story goes, the tea drinker died first, and there's no record of the coffee-drinker's death. The experiment proved nothing, suffering from a lack of rigor (to say the least). Source: Uppsala University, "Coffee - rat poison or miracle medicine?"
Simulated Anthrax On The Subway
In June 1966, the U.S. Army's Special Operations Division secretly dispersed harmless bacteria in the New York Subway system to model the effects of an outbreak of more harmful germs. According to Army reports, "Test results show that a large portion of the working population of New York City would be exposed to disease if one or more pathogenic agents were disseminated covertly in several subway lines at a period of peak traffic." Source: Deadly Cultures: Biological Warfare Since 1945. Wheelis, Rózsa, and Dando. Harvard University Press, 2006.
Weaponized Fleas In The Desert
Operation Big Itch, 1954, was an attempt to discover the potential of weaponized fleas. The operation, part of the Cold War-era United States biological weapons program, took place at Dugway Proving Ground in Utah. According to "Using the flea as weapon," an article in the Army Chemical Review, "In the United States, the plague flea concept was competing against the use of mosquitoes, flies, ticks, and lice. Of these concepts, the United States put most of its energies behind weaponizing yellow fever in combination with the Aedes aegypti mosquito."
Food Through A Hole In The Stomach
U.S. Army Surgeon William Beaumont (above) found an extraordinary patient in Alexis St. Martin, a Canadian trapper who was injured in a hunting accident and left with a hole in his belly that led directly into his stomach. Beaumont attached a string to various foods, including oysters and rare roast beef, and introduced them into the wound to observe the rates of digestion. Despite the unorthodox techniques, this research would later lead to the discovery of the importance of stomach acid in digestion, earning Beaumont the epithet "father of gastric physiology." Source: Experiments and observations on the gastric juice, and the physiology of digestion. Beaumont, Martin and Combe. Maclachlan & Stewart, 1838
Candy For Mental Patients
In 1945, Sweden's new National Dental Service commissioned research, now known as the Vipeholm experiments, in which researchers gave subjects large amounts of sticky sugary candy in order to study the development of cavities. This might not have been so controversial, except that the subjects couldn't give consent to their participation: "The use of mentally handicapped subjects was criticized in the Swedish press and all studies on mentally handicapped individuals were stopped in 1954," according to Topics In Dental Biochemistry by Mark Levine (Springer, 2010).