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Darwin Correspondence Project

2.26 Linnean Society medal

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In 1908 the Linnean Society celebrated the jubilee of ‘the greatest event’ in its whole history, which had occurred on 1 July 1858: the presentation by Charles Lyell and Joseph Hooker of papers by Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace outlining the theory of evolution by natural selection. It was decided to mark the jubilee by commissioning a ‘Darwin-Wallace medal’, which was designed and modelled by the successful medallist Frank Bowcher, with a portrayal of Darwin on one side and Wallace on the other. According to the minutes of a Linnean Society Council meeting held on 30 January 1908, Edward Poulton, who had commissioned the statue of Darwin in the Oxford University Museum, successfully proposed that ‘the Darwin Medal be permanent and awarded at stated periods’ to worthy recipients. Foremost among these recipients was Wallace himself, who received his medal (uniquely cast in gold) at a great anniversary meeting on 1 July 1908, widely reported in the press. Wallace mounted the platform ‘amid a storm of cheering’, and expressed gratitude to the Society, not only for the honour of the award, but also for ‘perpetuating his features’ together with those of Darwin on the medal. This was, indeed, a pairing of the two men of a kind which had never been sanctioned by Darwin or his family during Darwin’s lifetime. Silver medals were then presented to other noted Darwinians from across Europe: Joseph Hooker, Francis Galton, Ray Lankester, Eduard Strasburger, Ernst Haeckel and August Weismann – a member of the German embassy staff received the medals on behalf of the absent Haeckel and Weismann. Hooker in his speech of thanks recalled the momentous reading of the papers in 1858, and the stunned or bemused reactions of the Linnean Society audience; but he also apologised for these ‘half-century old, real or fancied memories of a nonagenarian’ about ‘the most notable event in the Annals of Biology’ since the publication of Linnaeus’s Systema Naturae. The 1908 ceremony seemed to celebrate but also to mark the close of a key chapter in scientific history: the Manchester Guardian reported that many of the men who attended were, like Wallace and Hooker, ‘of very advanced age’. 

The Linnean Society council was anxious that the Darwin-Wallace medal should be respected as an honorific award and should not be obtainable by purchase as a collector’s piece. Nevertheless, the Society donated medals to Shrewsbury School, to the British Museum, and to the Fitzwilliam Museum, whose newly appointed director Sydney Cockerell had requested one for the collections. Others were sent, honouring the Society’s connection with Linnaeus, to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and to the Swedish Academy (for literature). There was a memorial volume, recording all the speeches at the 1908 ceremony; the frontispiece was a detail from John Collier’s portrait of Darwin, which belonged to the Linnean, and the other illustrations were portraits of the seven 1908 medal-winners, mainly taken from photographs. These eight plates were also ‘printed on large paper’ to be sold as a set, separately from the book. 

For Marion H. Spielmann, writing in the Magazine of Art in 1900, Frank Bowcher was the only British medallist who successfully emulated the achievements of his French contemporaries, producing medals that were works of art in their own right – a ‘truthful rendering of living flesh and blood . . . as suave and graceful in composition as the artist can make it, and as pleasing in its purely decorative design as imagination can inspire or example suggest’. Leonard Forrer in his monumental Biographical Dictionary of Medallists (1904) similarly praised Bowcher’s designs as gifted with ‘a genuine artistic feeling . . . warmth, expression and life’. Both writers noted that these qualities were made possible by the French invention of a ‘reducing machine’: the medallist could now model his design freely on a larger scale in wax, and the model was then cast and mechanically scaled down, so that the sculptor no longer needed to engrave the metal dies. Bowcher’s design for the Linnean Society’s medal has a lively head-and-shoulders portrayal of Darwin in relief on one side, and of Wallace on the other; both are in three-quarter view, but Darwin is nearer to a profile. The medal is inscribed round the rim on both sides ‘LINN.SOC.LOND: 1858–1908’. The ‘Objects exhibited in the Library’ of the Linnean Society in 1908 included a ‘Portrait of Darwin from a photograph by his son, from which the Darwin-medal portrait was principally modelled’. The photograph in question was Leonard Darwin’s study of his father sitting in a wicker chair on the veranda at Down, c.1874, familiar to the public as the frontispiece to the second volume of Francis Darwin’s Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, 1887. ‘Plaster casts from the dies of the medal, by Mr. F. Bowcher’ were also put on show in 1908.  

There is a photograph in the Natural History Museum (NHM 1456491, accessible via Bridgeman Images) of a medallion or plaque portrait of Darwin – in profile, facing right – inscribed by hand ‘F. Bowcher sc.’. However, the characterisation of Darwin is actually closer to that created by Wyon in the Royal Society medal. An undated plaque in the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Wedgwood collection (WE.2358-2016) reproduces the design of Bowcher’s medal, but is inscribed simply ‘DARWIN’.  

  • physical location Linnean Society, London (several copies of the medal, in different metals) 

  • accession or collection number the silver medal awarded to Sir Joseph Hooker and bequeathed to the Linnean by his widow in 1922 has the location code AC Box 19. The Linnean Society also holds the dies for the medal – location code AC Box 10. The persistent identifier for the bronze is C36041.   

  • copyright holder Linnean Society 

  • originator of image Frank Bowcher 

  • date of creation 1908 

  • computer-readable date 1908-01-01 to 1908-06-30 

  • medium and material medals cast in silver or bronze. (Wallace’s gold medal still belongs to his descendants.) 

  • references and bibliography M.H. Spielmann, ‘Our rising artists: Frank Bowcher, medallist. With some comments on the medallic art’, Magazine of Art, 24 (1900), pp. 154–158. Leonard Forrer, Biographical Dictionary of Medallists . . . with References to their Works, vol. 1 (London: Spink & Son, 1904), pp. xxxvi, 252–258. Linnean Society Council Minute Book No. 8 (1902–1910) in the Society’s library: minutes of meetings in 1908–1909, pp. 254, 258, 268, 272, 286, 290–295, 312, 316–317. The Darwin-Wallace Celebration held on Thursday, 1st July, 1908, by the Linnean Society of London (London: Linnean Society, 1908). ‘The Darwin-Wallace Celebration’, Times, 2 July 1908, pp. 10 and 11. ‘Darwin-Wallace Jubilee. Interesting celebration in London’, Manchester Guardian, 2 July 1908, p. 9. Andrew Thomas Gage and William Thomas Stearn, A Bicentenary History of the Linnean Society of London (London: Academic Press, 1988), pp. 101–102, 165–167. John C. Thackray, A Catalogue of Portraits, Paintings and Sculpture at the Natural History Museum, London (London: Mansell for the NHM, 1995), p. 10, no. 19. George Beccaloni, ‘The Darwin-Wallace medal, the Alfred Russel Wallace website’,    


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