ERNST MAYR: An Informal Chronology

Ernst Mayr

Ernst Mayr:  An Informal Chronology

Compiled by Robert Young

1904 Born July 5, in Kempten, Germany, to Otto and Helene Mayr. As a young boy, influenced by his father, a judge who was an amateur natural historian and paleontologist, Ernst Mayr began bird watching. By the age of ten, he could recognize all of the local bird species by call as well as sight.

1923 Enrolls at University of Greifswald, Germany, as medical student. Ernst Mayr studied medicine in the tradition of four generations of physicians in his father’s family. Mayr chose the Greifswald school in part because of the area’s rich ornithological diversity.

1923 Publishes first scientific paper, in “Ornithologische Monatsberichte.” At the invitation of Erwin Stresemann, the curator of birds at the Berlin Natural History Museum, Ernst Mayr reported on his sighting of two Red-crested Pochards (diving ducks), the first such sighting in central Germany since 1846. (Some have since speculated that had Ernst Mayr not spotted those two rare birds, he might never have met Stresemann, and may well have had a life-long career in medicine.) With Stresemann’s encouragement, Ernst Mayr performed volunteer work in the Berlin Museum’s bird collection during university holidays.

1925 Begins formal study of ornithology at the University of Berlin. After passing the candidate of medicine examinations and completing his preclinical studies, Ernst Mayr switched to an ornithological Ph.D. program under Stresemann’s tutelage.

1926 (June) Obtained Ph.D. at the age of 21.

1926 (July 1) Accepts position as Assistant in Berlin Museum’s Bird Department. Rushed to complete the entire doctoral program in one and a half years, writing a dissertation that biogeographically analyzed the migration of the Serin Finch in Europe, in order to qualify for this position.

1928 Leads ornithological expeditions to Dutch New Guinea and German Mandated New Guinea. An experience that fulfilled “the greatest ambition of [his] youth.” Collected ca. 7000 bird skins in two and a half years. Dr. Mayr recently recounted an anecdote concerning these expeditions that illustrates the playful side of the scientist: He tried to increase his standing with the New Guinea natives by using a trick employed in Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Upon learning from his almanac that a lunar eclipse was about to occur, Mayr announced to the tribe, through an interpreter, that the moon was about to totally darken. Unlike Twain’s characters, however, they were not impressed, and the elderly chief said to Dr. Mayr, “Don’t worry, my son, it will soon get light again.”

Ernst Mayr 1928

1929/30 Member of the Whitney South Sea Expedition to Solomon Islands. Returns to his position at the Berlin Museum.

1931 Hired by American Museum of Natural History, Department of Ornithology, at first for one year only. Initially employed on soft money, as a visiting curator, to catalog the Whitney Expedition collection of South Sea birds. Completed 12 research papers, describing 12 new species and 68 new subspecies, before the end of his first year there. Dr. Mayr’s large output of work in 1931 did not altogether surprise AMNH administrators. His mastery of the New York City subway system during his first day in America–from a Brooklyn pier, carrying suitcases, through several different trains to upper Manhattan’s International House–signaled the young man’s determination to succeed in all ventures.

1932 Appointed Curator of Whitney-Rothschild Collection, Department of Ornithology, American Museum of Natural History. Lord Walter Rothschild’s financial difficulties led to the sale of his enormous ornithological collection to the AMNH, which ensured Dr. Mayr of a permanent curatorial position there. During his 20-year AMNH tenure, Dr. Mayr described 26 new bird species and 410 subspecies, more than any other living avian systematist.

1935 Marries Margarete (Gretel) Simon, on May 4. A marriage that would eventually produce two daughters, Christa and Susanne.

1941 Presents Jesup Lectures at Columbia University.

1942 Publication of Systematics and the Origin of Species. This full-length monographic expansion of his Jesup Lectures, a landmark of evolutionary biology, brought the vast central European (mainly German) literature of systematics and evolution to the attention of English-speaking biologists. Generally acknowledged as the work by which Dr. Mayr will be most remembered in the history of science, it was a ground-breaking contribution to the creation of the “modern evolutionary synthesis,” which integrated the theories of Darwin and Mendel. Dr. Mayr reasoned that Darwin’s notion of natural selection could be used to explain all evolution–not only why animals and plants change over time, but why genes evolve at the molecular level. Dr. Mayr’s chief observation was that new species arise when members of a species are separated in space and time. Over time, separate populations of the same species evolve different traits–so-called isolating mechanisms–that discourage them from interbreeding and eventually become so different genetically that they form separate species. In examining the origin of organic diversity, evolutionary synthesis and speciation “from the viewpoint of a zoologist,” as the subtitle reads, this work was widely acclaimed as the “Bible of the new systematics.”

1946 Spearheads campaign to create the Society for the Study of Evolution. Indicated Dr. Mayr’s status as a pioneer in the organization of evolutionary biology as a discipline in the United States.

1947 Becomes founding editor of the Society’s journal, “Evolution.”

1953 Accepts position as Alexander Agassiz Professor of Zoology at Harvard University’s Museum of Comparative Zoology. Marked a key career change, as Dr. Mayr moved out of avian systematics and into evolutionary biology and the history and philosophy of biology (although he did complete J.L. Peters’s Check-list of Birds of the World during his Harvard tenure). Also signaled an important transition from the status of museum curator to that of Harvard professor.

1953 With co-authors Linsley and Usinger, publishes Methods and Principles of Systematic Zoology. Continues Dr. Mayr’s work in systematics research, with special emphasis on basic principles.

Ernst Mayr, April 20, 1958

1959 Commemorates centenary of Darwin’s Origin of Species by producing two landmark papers, “Darwin and the evolutionary theory in biology” and “Agassiz, Darwin and Evolution.”

1961 Assumes directorship of the Museum of Comparative Zoology. Serves as Director of the Museum 1961-1970. During Dr. Mayr’s tenure as Director, he planned a new laboratory wing for the Museum and ensured financing for the project. Dr. Mayr steered the acquisition of the Estabrook Forest in Concord to establish the Concord Field Station of the Museum.

1961 Publishes paper, “Cause and effect in biology.” His first major contribution to the literature of the philosophy of biology.

1963 Publication of Animal Species And Evolution. Enlargement of Systematics and the Origin of Species, offering new views on the nature of species and isolation. Some have suggested that this is the closest Mayr ever came to writing a general textbook on evolution. Stephen Jay Gould and other naturalists have cited this work as having shaped their thinking on evolution more than any other.

1970 Receives National Medal of Science.

1975 Contributes chapter entitled “Materials for the history of American ornithology” to the English translation of his mentor Erwin Stresemann’s Ornithology from Aristotle to the Present.

1982 Publication of The Growth of Biological Thought. Comprehensive history of biological problems and concepts, predominantly in diversity, evolutionary biology, and heredity.

1983 Receives Balzan Prize in Biology. The Balzan Prizes are inter-disciplinary in nature. The goal is to foster, on a world-wide level, culture and science, outstanding humanitarian causes, and peace and brotherhood among peoples, regardless of nationality, race or creed. There being no Nobel Prize in Biology, this is one of the highest honors in biology.

1988 Publishes Toward A New Philosophy of Biology.

1991 Issues One Long Argument: Charles Darwin and the Genesis of Modern Evolutionary Thought. This is the only existing detailed analysis of Darwin’s theories.

1994 Awarded International Prize for Biology (Japan Prize). Dr. Mayr received this prestigious prize from the emperor and empress of Japan, for his work in systematics.

1995 (October) Library of the Museum of Comparative Zoology rededicated as the Ernst Mayr Library of the Museum of Comparative Zoology.

1997 Publishes This is Biology: The Science of the Living World.

1999 Receives Crafoord Prize, Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. Ernst Mayr shared this prize with John Maynard Smith and George C. Williams, with the Academy of Sciences citation: "…for their fundamental contributions to the conceptual development of evolutionary biology." Dr. Mayr is specifically cited as a leader in the creation of “the modern synthesis” of the theory of evolution and as the clarifier of the biological concept of species.

2001  Publishes What Evolution Is.

2004  Issues his final book, What Makes Biology Unique?: Considerations on the Anatomy of a Scientific Discipline.

2005 Passes away on February 3 at age 100 of liver cancer, at the Bedford, Mass., retirement community where he had lived since 1997. International tributes, hailing a career lasting more than eighty years, during which he published more 700 scientific papers and 24 books and received more than 25 major scientific awards and honors and many honorary degrees, universally acknowledge Dr. Mayr as the leading evolutionary biologist of the twentieth century.

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