Wallace embarked on two major expeditions as a collector, sending specimens to museums and private collectors back home. The first expedition, at the age of twenty-five, was to the Amazon with his friend Bates. Bates concentrated on the Amazon, Wallace on the Rio Negro. Wallace’s younger brother Herbert joined him but unfortunately die of a fever. His four years in the Amazon Basin were very productive but, tragically, his ship sank on the way home and all his specimens and most of his notebooks were lost. His account of this voyage A Narrative of Travels on the Amazon was published in 1853.
With typical resilience Wallace embarked on a second expedition in 1854 which was to turn out to be the most important event of his life. Wallace turned eastwards to the Malay Archipelago in search of, among other things, the Bird of Paradise and the Orang-utan. He described his journeys from island to island in his highly successful and readable book The Malay Archipelago (1869). Along with this literary success there were two important scientific ones. The first and most well-known achievement was his discovery, independently of Darwin, of the principle of natural selection. As is well-known, he sent an account of his discovery to Darwin to the latter’s great discomfiture. Contributions from each were read to the Linnean Society in 1858 and Wallace’s letter stimulated Darwin into writing The Origin of Species. The new and controversial explanation of evolution became known as the Darwin-Wallace theory.