The Work In Darwin's Shadow

Specimens belonging to Alfred Russel Wallace, who co-discovered the theory of evolution by natural selection, were found inside an antique chest now owned by a Washington, D.C., resident.
By Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 8, 2009

It was in 1979, in an antiques shop in Arlington, that a young law school graduate named Robert Heggestad noticed a lovely rosewood cabinet parked behind the counter. How much? Six hundred, the shopkeeper said. Sold, Heggestad said. The shopkeeper asked, "Don't you want to know what's in it?" Heggestad said, "Not really."

It was, it turned out, a cabinet of wonders. It is now in Heggestad's dining room in his apartment in the Kalorama section of Washington. Open up the cabinet, and the world of 2009 vanishes, replaced by the world of a very meticulous, extraordinarily curious 19th-century naturalist.

There are butterflies and beetles, moths and shells. There's a small bird. Flies. Bees. Praying mantises. Tarantulas. Seedpods. A hornet's nest.

This is the specimen collection of Alfred Russel Wallace.

There is no shame in failing to recognize the name. Wallace was a field biologist who never cared about notoriety, which may explain why so few people know that he co-discovered the theory of evolution by natural selection.

On Thursday, the world will celebrate the bicentennial of Charles Darwin's birth, but Wallace had the same idea that made Darwin famous, and he arrived at it independently while collecting insects in the Malay Archipelago. The tale of Darwin and Wallace, and how one became synonymous with evolution and the other a footnote, is one of the great dramas in the history of science.

Heggestad himself knew almost nothing about Wallace until two years ago. Soon after he bought the cabinet, he contacted the Natural History Museum in London to ask whether the collection had any particular value. The museum said it looked interesting and suggested that Heggestad contact the Smithsonian Institution. But he soon lost interest in pursuing the matter. Over the years, he lugged his lovely piece of furniture and its interesting scientific collection through four different household moves.

"I'd forgotten his name. I knew it was some important British biologist," he said. "I didn't appreciate what I had for many years. It was kind of a show-and-tell piece. It's a beautiful piece of furniture."

Two years ago, hoping to sell it, he resumed his research. By that point, Wallace's reputation had become resurgent. Popular books and magazine articles extolled Wallace's overlooked genius. Heggestad's research began to fill up his dining room.

Heggestad hired a handwriting expert to study the labels in the collection and in the only other Wallace collection, at the London museum, and she concluded that they matched.

Heggestad won't say how much he thinks the collection is now worth. "It's very, very valuable. It's priceless. There's nothing like it in the world," he said.

"I think it's a fabulous thing," said David Grimaldi, curator of invertebrate zoology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. "I think it's a national treasure, actually."

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