Evolution guru’s medals auctioned for £273,000

Tuesday 16th August 2022 11:00 am
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Linnean £75k medal ()

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A COLLECTION of nine medals awarded to the Usk-born co-founder of ‘the Theory of Evolution’ have sold at auction for £273,000 - more than 500 per cent above the £52,700 estimate.

The town honoured Alfred Russell Wallace last November with the unveiling of a bronze bust by long-time admirer, comedian Bill Bailey.

And the Wallace Memorial Fund is now hoping to raise funds to purchase eight of the medals at cost price for the nation, after they were bought by one buyer who is prepared to sell them at cost price.

The Linnean Society of London, gold Darwin-Wallace Medal, awarded to mark the 50th anniversary of Wallace and Charles Darwin’s joint reading of their ‘Theory of Evolution’ paper in 1858 was valued at £10,000, but went for an eye-watering £75,000.

Other medals to sell were: The Royal Society Copley Medal for £24,000; the Royal Society Queen’s Medal for £20,000; The Order of Merit for £25,000; The Linnean Society’s 1892 annual medal for £24,000; The Royal Geographical Society’s Founder’s Medal for £36,000; the Royal Society Darwin medal for £32,000; The France, Sociéte de Géographie, Gold Medal for Research Expeditions for £30,000; and the Netherlands East Indies, Batavian Society of Arts and Sciences, Centenary Medal for £6,000.

“This is arguably the most important scientific theory ever proposed, so these awards must surely be some of the most important cultural objects in the history of science,” said Dr George Beccaloni, chairman of the WMF, before the auction in London.

And appealing for help in purchasing them from the new owner, he added: “These are probably the very last important artefacts associated with the discovery of natural selection still in private hands, and it would be a terrible shame for them to be lost to the nation.”

Although famous in his own lifetime, Wallace’s role was largely forgotten until recently after his death at the age of 90 in 1913.

While Darwin came from a wealthy background, Wallace, born over the river from Usk town centre in Kensington Cottage, Llanbadoc, nearly 199 years ago (January 8, 1823), was “an unlikely hero, from humble origins,” said Bill Bailey at the bust unveiling in Twyn Square.

“I first heard about Wallace while I was trekking through the jungles of Indonesia 15 years ago and I’ve been fascinated by him ever since,” he told those attending.

“This geeky Victorian collector changed our understanding of life on Earth.

“Along with Charles Darwin, he came up with one of the greatest scientific ideas of all time: the theory of evolution by natural selection.

“These two men independently came up with the same explosive theory, but now, 100 years on, Wallace has been forgotten.

“I guess you could say he’s the Missing Link in the story of evolution,” joked the star, who is chairman of the Wallace Correspondents Society and presented a BBC documentary “Bill Bailey’s Jungle Hero” about Wallace, which is currently on iPlayer.

Wallace, a self-trained naturalist, left his career as a building surveyor to travel to Borneo in his 20s to pursue his passion and collect exotic exhibits, then secured a grant from the Royal Geographic Society to visit the Malayan Archipelago.

“Wallace made incredible observations on how creatures adapt to their surroundings, which began to formulate a revolutionary idea in his mind,” said Dr Beccaloni.

He asked himself: “How had God created such unique creatures, perfectly designed for their environment?

“Wasn’t it more likely that the apes with the strongest arms had been most successful in breeding, meaning that the dominant genetic traits were persisted throughout the species?”

He found further evidence when he came across the Flying Frog, which would later be named in his honour.

Wallace then wrote in 1856 about his findings to Darwin, much to the latter’s shock, as he thought he alone was on the brink of discovering evolution.

But the two combined for a joint paper presented at the Linnean Society unveiling ‘the Theory of Evolution’, which sent shockwaves around the world, and spurred Darwin into writing “The Origin of Species”.

Chair of Usk Civic Society Tony Kear, which launched the fundraising for the bronze bust, said last year at the unveiling: “I didn’t know anything about Alfred Russell Wallace until seven years ago, but now I hope the rest of the world will.”

Sculpted by Felicity Crawley, wife of fund president Tom Crawley, it was cast at the Arch Bronze foundry in London and the plinth includes plaques showing birds of paradise and the Malay Archipelago where he explored, set alongside an interpretation board.

For more information about the medals and Wallace, go to wallacefund.myspecies.info and www.facebook.com/1stJuly1858/

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