Academic journal article Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society

Biographical Memoirs: Ernst Mayr

Academic journal article Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society

Biographical Memoirs: Ernst Mayr

Article excerpt

5 JULY 1904 * 3 FEBRUARY 2005

ERNST MAYR is best known as an evolutionary biologist, one of the major architects of the evolutionary synthesis (1937-48) and one of the leading evolutionary theorists of the twentieth century. Yet his interests were much wider, well suiting him for membership in the American Philosophical Society-his career extended well outside of avian biology. As an ornithologist, Ernst was, most people thought, primarily a systematist, but his first and last major works in avian biology dealt with distribution of birds, starting with his Ph.D. thesis (1926) and ending with his birds of Northern Melanesia (2001). As the years passed Ernst Mayr turned his attentions to more and more diverse subjects, from systematics to evolutionary theory, history of science, and finally philosophy of science. As a modern renaissance man, Ernst Mayr became an internationally acknowledged authority in systematic ornithology, biography, evolutionary theory, history of science, and philosophy of science. Fortunately he lived into his 101st year with his mind clear until his last day, so he had the time needed to develop each of these five careers. Herein, I would like to trace Ernst's life through his several careers in the hopes of elucidating his remarkable abilities.

Ernst was born and educated in Germany, yet he must be considered an American scientist, having worked at the American Museum of Natural History, New York, and the Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University, for 74 of his 100 years. Almost all of his publications were in the area of evolutionary biology; he published a few minor papers in functional biology. Ernst was truly a non-technical person; the most sophisticated tool he used was a Dictaphone. In his later years he complained about libraries' putting their catalogues in an electronic form because he did not know how to type-he did not even know the location of the keys on the keyboard-which delayed him greatly in finding books he did not know. Computers were out of the question, which was perhaps unfortunate as he enjoyed getting his mail as soon as possible. He was outgoing, sought interesting people whether they were important or not, talked to them, listened to what they said, read intensively, and thought deeply about everything he took in. And Ernst was loyal to his friends and a bit sad during his last decade as he had lost so many earlier friends; but he readily made new ones. He had an amazing memory, but, more important, he could readily put the bits of knowledge together into new and significant ideas. He was a real teacher and simply could not allow someone to leave with wrong ideas. Ernst had strongly held ideas and was firm in them; hence, many people considered him to be overly dogmatic. Perhaps he was, but he was interested in what was correct and not necessarily in who was correct. He would argue strongly for his ideas, but he would change his position readily if he was convinced of the opposing stance. My doctoral thesis, done under Ernst, demonstrated that his published assessment of an earlier paper was completely wrong. One had to be certain of one's facts and logic in any argument with Ernst, which prevented many students and co-workers from discussing controversial ideas with him. That made him sad. I can recall clearly his statement, "My bark is worse than my bite."

I first met Ernst Mayr in summer 1953, when I was an undergraduate student volunteer in the Department of Ornithology at the AMNH; he had just started his tenure at the Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University. Late in the following summer, I spoke to him again about graduate studies, and to my complete surprise he suggested the possibility that I study with him at Harvard; I applied, was accepted, and received my degree in 1959. Since then I maintained close contacts with Ernst as a mentor and close friend for the rest of his life, visiting him for the last time in late December 2004, a few weeks before his death, when he was in the nursing wing of his retirement home. …

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