Ernst Mayr on Barbara McClintock
  Ernst Mayr     Biography    
Recorded: 31 Mar 2002

There was, of course, Barbara McClintock. She was sort of a loner; she didn’t mix much with people. But she liked to have visits in her office for a few outsiders. There were people like Ernst Caspari and a few others who also visited Barbara McClintock.

She was a great weather buff, and she loved to talk weather. Whenever there a Bermuda High—that was a time to go visit Barbara McClintock and talk about how much longer that the Bermuda High would be lasting, and so on and so forth. Barbara McClintock would explain to me all about her findings in corn, and I never understood a word. Because first of all, she was such a private person, she never told you every step—she’d jump in her argument, and I always got lost after a very short time. Then of course she had names for each chromosome and names for each locus, and she was familiar with them all and they were part of the explanation. I never knew what was what. But anyhow, I enjoyed visiting her. But when people say that people ignored her arguments [that] was to a very large extent her fault of being quite unable to explain to a non-specialist what she had been finding.

She was just one of these extras. But then there were some other groups in addition to the phage group and Drosophila group. There were individual investigators like Ernst Caspari and some others that just came there for the summer and were not part of any group.

Ernst Mayr has been universally acknowledged as the leading evolutionary biologist of the twentieth century. He earned his Ph.D. in ornithology at the age of 21 from the University of Berlin in 1926. During his tenure at the Berlin Museum, from 1926 to 1930, Mayr led ornithological expeditions to Dutch New Guinea and German Mandated New Guinea. In 1931, he was hired by the American Museum of Natural History, Department of Ornithology. During his 20-year AMNH tenure, Dr. Mayr described 26 new bird species and 410 subspecies, more than any other living avian systematist.

In 1953, Mayr became Alexander Agassiz Professor of Zoology at Harvard University's Museum of Comparative Zoology, and served as Director of the Museum (1961-1970). He has published hundreds of papers and eight books, including Systematics and the Origin of Species (1942), which became a landmark of evolutionary biology.

Mayr has been honored with more than 25 major scientific awards and honors and many honorary degrees, including the National Medal of Science (1970), the Balzan Prize in Biology (1983) and the Crafoord Prize of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences (1999) with John Maynard Smith and George C. Williams "for their fundamental contributions to the conceptual development of evolutionary biology."

In 1995, Harvard’s Library of the Museum of Comparative Zoology was rededicated as the Ernst Mayr Library of the Museum of Comparative Zoology. Mayr has been a longtime friend and mentor to Jim Watson.