Alfred Russel Wallace Biography

 Alfred Russel Wallace

Sometimes misspelled as: Alfred Russell Wallace


Birth: January 8, 1823 in Usk, Monmouthshire, Wales

Death: November 7, 1913 in Broadstone, Dorset, England



British naturalist, codiscoverer with Charles Darwin of the principles of biological evolution. Wallace was a philosophical skeptic, a materialist. His experience of Spiritualist phenomena overcame his skepticism.

In the preface to his book On Miracles and Modern Spiritualism (1874) Wallace writes:

"They compelled me to accept them, as facts, long before I could accept the spiritual explanation of them: there was at that time `no place in my fabric of thought into which it could be fitted.' (Argument of Dr. Carpenter). By slow degrees a place was made.''

Wallace was led to believe 1) in the existence of numerous preternatural intelligences of various grades and 2) that some of these intelligences, although usually invisible and intangible to us, can and do act on matter, and do influence our minds. It was by the latter doctrine that he accounted for some of the residual phenomena in his work Contributions to the Theory of Natural Selection (1870).

Wallace was born on January 8, 1823, at Usk, Monmouthshire. After leaving school he worked as a land surveyor and architect. Around 1840 his interest in botany began and he started a herbarium. In 1845, he was an English teacher at the Collegiate School, Leicester, where he met H. W. Bates, who influenced him to collect and study beetles.

In 1848, they commenced a joint naturalist expedition to the River Amazon. On the return journey, most of Wallace's collection was destroyed in a fire on the ship, but his book A Narrative of Travels on the Amazon and Rio Negro appeared in 1853. He next traveled in the Malay Archipelago, and his large insect collections passed to Oxford University and the British Museum.

In February 1858, during a severe attack of fever, he was thinking about Malthus's Essay on Population when, to quote his own words: "There suddenly flashed upon me the idea of the survival of the fittest.'' He drafted a theory which he posted to Charles Darwin a few days later. By coincidence, Wallace's paper was virtually an abstract of Darwin's own theory, written in 1842.

Wallace's earliest experiences relating to Spiritualism dated from 1844 when he was a schoolmaster in Leicester. Influenced by a lecture given by Spencer Hall on mesmerism, he tried similar experiments. Later, during twelve years of tropical wanderings in which he was occupied in the study of natural history, he heard occasionally of table-turning and spirit rapping. He decided to investigate them on his return.

His first opportunity came on July 22, 1865, in the house of a friend. After more than a dozen sittings he became satisfied that "there is an unknown power developed from the bodies of a number of persons placed in connection by sitting round a table with all their hands on it.''

The next stage of his inquiry began in September 1865 and was devoted to the physical and mental phenomena of Mary Marshall. In broad daylight, Wallace observed levitation, movement of objects without contact (telekinesis), and the alteration of weight. Although unknown to Marshall, the place name "Para,'' where Wallace's brother died of the last friend who saw him were spelled out. Messages came spelled backwards, through direct writing.

Impressed by these occurrences, Wallace investigated in his own home with the help of a medium. Phenomena were obtained and from November 1866 onward, Wallace had the opportunity to watch mediumship of Agnes Guppy-Volckman develop. A stout woman, she was lifted noiselessly on the top of the table while sitting in her chair, with five or six persons close around her. Musical sounds were heard without the presence of instruments. A German guest, a stranger, sang several songs and the strains of this music accompanied her throughout.

Guppy-Volckman's supposedly had the ability to apport flowers and fruit. In midwinter, after she sat for four hours in a small, warm, gas-lighted room in the Wallace home, a quantity of flowers appeared upon a bare table--anemones, tulips, chrysanthemums, Chinese primroses, and several ferns. Wallace stated: "All were absolutely fresh as if just gathered from a conservatory. They were covered with a fine cold dew. Not a petal was crumpled or broken, not the most delicate point or pinnule of the ferns was out of place.''

Wallace stated that the phenomenon was repeated afterward hundreds of times. The flowers sometimes arrived in large quantities. They were often brought on request, fruits as well as flowers. A friend of Wallace asked for a sunflower, and one six feet high fell on the table, with a large mass of earth about its roots.

The naturalist formed a committee of the London Dialectical Society in 1869 and witnessed, under test conditions, a variety of telekinetic phenomena. When the possibility of spirit photography was for the first time demonstrated in England in the studio of Frederick A. Hudson, Wallace was anxious to test this new phenomenon. Sitting with Guppy-Volckman he obtained a communication by raps that his mother would try to appear on Hudson's photographic plate.

He sat three times, choosing his own position, and found a male figure with a short sword on the first photographic plate, and a female figure on the two other plates. Reportedly, both of the latter images resembled his mother, and the second plate was unlike any known photograph previously taken of her. Under a magnifying glass, supposedly this second picture disclosed a special feature of his mother's face.

In view of these experiences and the large amount of testimony in the literature of Spiritualism to similar occurrences, Wallace declared it was his opinion that the phenomena of Spiritualism did not require further confirmation. "They are proved, quite as well as any facts are proved in other sciences.''

His later attitude was in accordance with this conviction. He never missed an opportunity to test psychic phenomena. He made several attempts to convince the pillars of scientific skepticism and started by inviting W. B. Carpenter to attend some sittings in his own home. Carpenter came one evening. Raps were heard, and these were repeated, sounding, at request, in any part of the table. Carpenter sat still and made no comment. He never returned to Wallace's home.

The same thing happened with his colleague John Tyndall, another scientific skeptic. Wallace had sent Thomas Henry Huxley, his paper "The Scientific Aspect of the Supernatural,'' which was later included in On Miracles and Modern Spiritualism. Huxley responded to Wallace, "I am neither shocked nor disposed to issue a commission of lunacy against you. It may be true, for anything that I know to the contrary, but really I cannot get up interest in the subject.'' G. H. Lewes accepted an invitation to the Wallace home but never went.

Between 1870 and 1880, Wallace had many opportunities to witness interesting phenomena in the houses of various friends. Through a member of his own family, automatic writing was received in his own home, purporting to come from his deceased brother William and containing many predictions which were later fulfilled.

In 1874, Wallace was asked by the Fortnightly Review to write an article on Spiritualism. It appeared under the title "A Defence of Modern Spiritualism'' and also later in On Miracles and Modern Spiritualism, first published in 1875. The volume also included two new chapters on the nature and purport of apparitions. Later editions would be enlarged with accounts of the author's further personal experiences in séances with Katie Cook, W. Haxby, Francis Ward Monck, William Eglinton, and others. During much of the rest of his life, Wallace found himself defending mediums, who were increasingly seen as frauds. His defense would lead to a lively discussions with Eleanor Sidgwick in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research in 1888.

Wallace defended Henry Slade and gave evidence of the genuineness of his phenomena at the trial in Bow Street Police Court, London, in 1876. In the same year, by casting his vote as president of the anthropological subcommittee of the British Association for the Advancement of Science he made possible the presentation of William F. Barrett's paper on Spiritualism.

In the years 1886-87, during a lecture tour of America, Wallace stayed for some time in three centers of Spiritualism--Boston, Washington and San Francisco. He attended materialization séances with a medium named Ross, and when it was rumored that she was caught in fraud he testified on her behalf in a letter to the Banner of Light.

In Washington, in the company of Elliot Coues, General Lippitt and D. Lyman, Wallace had remarkable experiences with the medium Pierre L. O. A. Keeler, and he sat in San Francisco at an outstanding slate-writing séance with Fred P. Evans in which writing was produced in five different colors and, on his impromptu suggestion, six crayon drawings were precipitated on six pieces of paper placed between a pair of slates, some of the drawings having personal relevance.

In later years, Wallace did not encounter much Spiritualist phenomena but he remained true to his convictions up to the end of his busy life. In 1910, he received the Order of Merit for his scientific researches, however, because of his advocacy of Spiritualism, his scientific contributions were largely ignored and have remained unheralded. He died at Broadstone, Dorset, on November 7, 1913.



Berger, Arthur S., and Joyce Berger. The Encyclopedia of Parapsychology and Psychical Research. New York: Paragon House, 1991.

Pleasants, Helene, ed. Biographical Dictionary of Parapsychology. New York: Helix Press, 1964.

Wallace, Alfred Russell. "Correspondence.'' Journal of the Society for Psychical Research 16 (1898).

------. My Life: An Autobiography. 2 vols. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1906.

------. On Miracles and Modern Spiritualism: Three Essays. London: James Burns, 1975.


 The above writeup was reproduced by permission from "Alfred Russel Wallace." Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology, 5th ed. Edited by J. Gordon Melton, 2001.



Wallace, Alfred Russell. 1906. My Life: An Autobiography. 2 vols. New York: Harper & Brothers,

Smith, Charles H. Evolution of an Evolutionist particularly Chapter One: "Belief and Spiritualism."

Smith, Charles H. 1992. Alfred Russel Wallace on Spiritualism, Man, and Evolution: An Analytical Essay

Clements, Harry, 1983. Alfred Russel Wallace: Biologist and Social Reformer. London: Hutchinson. 215 pp.

Fichman, Martin, 1981. Alfred Russel Wallace. Boston: Twayne Publishers. 188 pp.

Fichman, Martin, December 2003. An Elusive Victorian: The Evolution of Alfred Russel Wallace. Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press. 382 pp.

George, Wilma, 1964. Biologist Philosopher; A Study of the Life and Writings of Alfred Russel Wallace. London: Abelard-Schuman. 320 pp.

Marchant, James, ed., 1975 [reprint of 1916 ed]. Alfred Russel Wallace; Letters and Reminiscences. New York: Arno Press. 507 pp.

Raby, Peter, 2001. Alfred Russel Wallace, A Life. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press; London: Chatto & Windus. 340 pp.

Shermer, Michael, 2002. In Darwin's Shadow: The Life and Science of Alfred Russel Wallace: A Biographical Study on the Psychology of History. New York: Oxford University Press. 422 pp.

Ross A. Slotten, 2004. The Heretic in Darwin's Court: The Life of Alfred Russel Wallace. Columbia University Press, 602 pp.

Williams-Ellis, Amabel, 1966. Darwin's Moon: A Biography of Alfred Russel Wallace. London: Blackie. 261 pp.

Wilson, John G., 2000. The Forgotten Naturalist: In Search of Alfred Russel Wallace. Melbourne: Australia Scholarly Publishing. 263 pp.



Alfred Russel Wallace 1823-1913 - International Survivalist Society
Capsule Biography & Contributions of Alfred Russel Wallace (1823 - 1913) - Charles H. Smith
National Register of Archives - details the locations of holdings
Alfred Russel Wallace Collection, American Philosophical Society
The Evolution of a Naturalist - Oren Solomon Harman compares three Wallace biographies.
John van Wyhe reviews In Darwin's Shadow: The Life and Science
Alfred Russel Wallace - "one of the forgotten fathers of modern science"
Alfred Russel Wallace - short bio and an extended chronology

Full-Text of Some of Wallace's Published Writings (posted by Charles H. Smith)

Selected Writings relating to Spiritualism:














eBooks and articles by Alfred Russel Wallace:

Other Famous Works:


Reviews of Alfred Russel Wallace Spiritualist writings (from here)

'A defense of modern spiritualism' (1874)
International Review (New York) 2 (1875): 204-221 'Modern spiritualism' (anon.).
Pall Mall Gazette 19(2904) (8 June 1874): 2154-2155 'The moral philosophy of spiritualism' (anon.).
Spectator 47(2397) (6 June 1874): 718-720 'Mr. Wallace on the religion of spiritualism' (anon.).
On Miracles and Modern Spiritualism (first edition: 1875)
Academy 8(185, n.s.) (20 Nov. 1875): 522-523 (James S. Cotton).
English Mechanic no. 525 (16 April 1875): 111-112 (anon.). [also reviews Phenomena of Spiritualism by William Crookes]
Pall Mall Gazette 21(3148) (20 March 1875): 1083-1084 (anon.).
Later Edition:
Arena 16 (June 1896): 163-167 'Dr. Wallace's volume on modern spiritual philosophy' (B. O. Flower).
Daily Chronicle (London) no. 10570 (22 Jan. 1896): 3c 'Spooks and their raisers' (anon.).
Theosophical Review 24 (April 1899): 182-184 'Three spiritualistic reprints' (C. W. L.). [reviews three books]
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