Ernst Mayr on Advent of Molecular Biology
  Ernst Mayr     Biography    
Recorded: 31 Mar 2002

Molecular biology was the developing thing in my younger years particularly in Cold Spring Harbor. I couldn’t help getting interested because that’s what everybody talked about. And furthermore I was always interested just about in all branches of biology. For instance, I followed the anthropologic—the history and the whole literature on human origins I always followed carefully. I followed the literature on paleontology I knew all the major writings of what everybody did. [I had a] voracious interest in just bout everything. And so I had never any objections contrary to claims by people like [Michael] Ruse against molecular biology. I had objections to a few molecular biologists who were trained as chemists and were still working in chemistry departments and then came into biology and they—for instance, when they became head of the biology departments—this happened in three or four American universities—they fired every biologist and replaced them with biochemists. That I objected to. But otherwise, I was a very good friend with people like Phil Handler who later became, I think, the first leader of the National Academy of Sciences. And he was a good friend of mine. I was summertimes invited to the molecular symposia—a speaker who sort of connected molecular together with the more organism biologies. I never was in opposition to molecular biology as such.

There weren't any molecular journals in existence. Well, you know, how these fields are new. Most people don’t realize, but when I started in 1947 the journal Evolution; I had great trouble getting enough material. I had to combine two issues of the first four in the first volume. I had to desperately write papers myself to help fill in the volume. Nowadays, look at the 4,000 pages of a volume of evolution and that is because that field had grown so much. Evolution was not a subject that was—those were the days when departments of biology in America were still the department of botany and the department of zoology. Such things like “molecular biology” was unheard of. And if there was any splitting then they had a subject called physiology. But I mean zoology and botany, a good deal of the emphasis was simply learning the major types of animals and plants. I mean biology of 2002 is something very different from the biology of 1950.

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.