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Who was Alfred Russel Wallace?

Alfred Russel Wallace played a big role in the antivaccination movement in the late 19th Century.
Alfred Russel Wallace played a big role in the antivaccination movement in the late 19th Century.

Wallace was once an “eminent naturalist and codiscoverer of the principle of natural selection.”

Unlike Charles Darwin, you likely never heard of Alfred Russel Wallace though.

So what happened to him?

For some reason, there is “a resurgence of interest in Wallace” lately which has some folks wondering…

Did Wallace shun the limelight or did other scientists steal it from him?

Or did he fade from history because he became a part of the antivaccination movement in Victorian England.

Well, he’s not the only scientist to take a wrong turn later in life, although he certainly did precede the modern ones that we often think about, such as:

  • Dr. Linus Pauling – after winning two unshared Nobel prizes, he later pushed the idea that high doses of vitamins and other nutrients could treat disease, especially megadoses of vitamin C
  • Dr. Benjamin Spock – at the end of his career, he pushed a vegan lifestyle for all children

Like Pauling and Spock, Wallace’s legacy has a dark side – his lost causes for which “he became a passionate advocate,” including spiritualism, support of land nationalization, and an objection to compulsory smallpox vaccination.

Alfred Russel Wallace on Vaccination

Not surprisingly, Wallace once worked as a teacher in Leicester, England, which has been described as a “a stronghold of anti-vaccination” and a “Mecca of the anti-vaccinationists.”

“For a man admired by Charles Darwin, Sir Charles Lyell, Joseph Dalton Hooker, and Charles Sanders Peirce as one of the keenest minds of the Victorian age, Wallace’s public conversion to the anti-vaccination camp was a coup d’état for the various English anti-vaccination leagues and it gave them a new scientific foothold in the public debates over the utility of vaccination.”

Martin Fichman Resister’s logic

His time in Leicester likely didn’t influence Wallace though, as it was still a “well-vaccinated town” when he was there in the 1840s. In fact, Wallace and his children were all vaccinated and it wasn’t until he was “recruited some time in 1884 to the antivaccination movement through the efforts of his fellow spiritualist William Tebb (1830–1917), a radical liberal who in 1880 had cofounded the London Society for the Abolition of Compulsory Vaccination.”

How was he converted to becoming anti-vaccine? Interestingly, much like Dr. Bob describes reading the anti-vaccine book DPT: A Shot in the Dark, Wallace states that the book Papers on Vaccination made him have a change in “attitude towards vaccination.”

Like an antiquated version of dumpster diving in the VAERS database, Wallace misused a statistical analysis of life tables and mortalities to push his antivaccination ideas.

Similar to many modern anti-vaccine arguments, he also believed that:

  • only people living with poor sanitation and poor nutrition were at risk for smallpox, measles, whooping cough, yellow fever, diphtheria, and other “filth diseases”
  • getting vaccinated was more dangerous than having the disease
  • didn’t think the smallpox vaccine worked and “rejected vaccination as the cause of the rapid decline in the mortality from smallpox”
  • interpretive bias could be seen in reports put out by pro-vaccine scientists of the time

And similar to many modern anti-vaccine arguments, his arguments were “full of a great deal of trash and a great deal of very poor matter.”

What To Know About Alfred Russel Wallace

Alfred Russel Wallace played a big role in the antivaccination movement in the late 19th Century.

More About Alfred Russel Wallace

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