William Charles Wells is one of those historical figures who should be better known than he is. He was the first person to propose the theory of natural selection, decades before Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace. He was also the first to explain why dew forms on grass.
Wells was born in Charleston [then Charlestown], South Carolina in 1757 of Scottish immigrant parents. His father, Robert Wells, established a successful business as a printer, bookseller, and newspaper publisher in the town. [Image: Wells Shop, 71 Tradd Street]
When he was eleven, William's parents sent him to Scotland for education. Upon completion of his preparatory studies two years later, he attended Edinburgh University for a year.
During his time in Scotland he made several lifelong friendships. One of his closest friends was David Hume, nephew of the famous philosopher of the same name. It is very likely he met the philosopher himself or at least became familiar with his ideas.
Wells returned to Charleston in 1771 and started a medical apprenticeship under Dr. Alexander Garden, one of the most respected physicians in the town. Garden was also a respected naturalist for whom Linnaeus named the gardenia.
In 1775, Wells left Charleston abruptly for London. The move was prompted by the beginning of the American War for Independence. He had refused to sign a document calling for armed resistance to the British government. His father, an ardent Loyalist, had already gone to London earlier that year.
The following year he enrolled again at the University of Edinburgh and studied medicine. In 1778 he returned to London and took a course of lectures under the famed anatomist William Hunter. He was also accepted as a surgeon's pupil at St. Bartholomew's Hospital.
In 1779 he enlisted as a surgeon in a Scottish regiment in the Netherlands. According to his own account he resigned his commission due to ill-treatment by his commanding officer. He challenged the officer to a duel, but the officer refused to respond.
Wells then enrolled in the University of Leiden and prepared a dissertation, On Cold. He submitted it to Edinburgh in 1780 and received his M.D.
In May 1780, the British captured Charleston. Wells returned early in 1781 to manage his family's affairs there. For more than a year he wore many hats: he worked as a printer, bookseller, merchant, and a trustee for the properties of some of his father's friends. He also served in the Loyalist militia.
When the British evacuated Charleston in December 1782, Wells removed to St. Augustine, where he established the first weekly newspaper in Florida, The East Florida Gazette. The paper did not last long, however. The British returned Florida to Spain in 1784 as part of the treaty ending the American War for Independence. [Image: one of the surviving issues of the The East Florida Gazette
From Florida, Wells returned to London and lived near or with his parents. His father Robert had prospered there initially as a printer on Fleet Street, but fell into heavy debt before his death in 1794.
After returning to London, Wells devoted himself to medical and scientific pursuits. He became one of the physicians to the charitable Finsbury Dispensary in 1790 and joined the medical staff of St. Thomas's Hospital in 1798 as an Assistant Physician.
Two years later, he was appointed Physician at St. Thomas. He never prospered particularly in medicine, however, a fact he attributed in part to his exclusion from the prestigious Royal College of Physicians. Membership was then effectively restricted to M.D.s from Oxford and Cambridge.
For several years in the early 1800s he campaigned unsuccessfully to open the membership of College to graduates of all recognized medical schools.
In 1793 his intellectual reputation was sufficient to get him elected to the Royal Society of London, one of the world's most prestigious scientific associations. He was later elected to the Royal Society of Edinburgh.
After his return to London, he lived for a time at Salisbury Square, Fleet Street. He later moved to Sergeants Inn, a short distance away on the same street. [Image: Sergeants Inn, Fleet Street, where Wells lived in his later years. It is currently a boutique hotel]
Wells made several important contributions to medical and scientific research. In 1814 the Royal Society awarded Wells the Rumford Medal for his groundbreaking Essay on Dew. Through painstaking research on many a chilly morning, he was the first to establish that the cause of dew formation was condensation of water under specific conditions of temperature, temperature change, and the conductivity of materials.
Later Victorian scientists, including Sir John Herschel and John Tyndall, praised Wells' Essay on Dew as a model of inductive method. Herschel used it as the main example of the method in his Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy, calling it "beautiful."
In 1813 Wells presented a paper to the Royal Society entitled "Some observations on the causes of the differences of color and form between the white and negro races of men." His object was to try to explain the origins of the human "races," which he equated with "varieties."
In the course of the presentation, he stated the principle of natural selection 45 years before Darwin and Wallace. After discussing the artificial selection of domestic breeding of animals, he goes on to propose that the different varieties of humankind are the result of selection by nature:
"[What was done for animals artificially] seems to be done with equal efficiency, though more slowly, by nature, in the formation of varieties of mankind, fitted for the country which they inhabit. Of the accidental varieties of man, which would occur among the first scattered inhabitants, some would be better fitted than the others to bear the diseases of the country. This race would multiply while the others would decrease, and as the darkest would be best fitted for the [African] climate, at length they would become the most prevalent, if not the only race."
The paper was published in 1818, but Darwin and Wallace were not aware of it when they presented their joint paper on natural selection in 1858. After Darwin published The Origin of Species in 1859, an American clergyman alerted him to the existence of Wells' work.
In later editions, Darwin acknowledged that Wells was likely the first person to have hit upon the principle of natural selection, although he noted correctly that Wells had limited it to humans and "certain characters alone," not the entire spectrum of life. Ironically, Darwin himself did not directly apply natural selection to humans in The Origin of Species. That came later, in The Descent of Man (1871).
Wells died of heart disease in 1817. He left behind a brief memoir of his life. It was published the following year, along with his Essay on Dew and the paper in which he proposed the idea of natural selection.
He is buried next to his parents at St. Bride's, Fleet Street, which was known as "The Printer's Church" because of the concentration of printing establishments on Fleet Street. A memorial his sister Louisa erected to Wells and their parents was destroyed by German bombs in World War II.
Louisa Wells Aikman was herself a music score collector and author. She was banished from South Carolina as a Loyalist in 1778. She recorded her experiences in A Voyage from South Carolina to London (London, 1779). Another of Wells' sisters, Helena, was the author of several books, including two novels. Wells never married and had no known children.
Sources: The main source for Wells' life is his short memoir mentioned above.
An overview of Well's life and a detailed analysis of his work can be found in N.J. Wade, Destined for Distinguished Oblivion: the Scientific Vision of William Charles Wells (New York: Springer, 2003)