Recorded: 31 Mar 2002
So I was offered this position [at Harvard University], it wasn’t much of a position. One year, soft money—very soft. It was raised from a rich lady for that one year—$2,500 dollars. And after that one year I had published seven papers and I worked day and night. The material was so beautiful, I mean, I couldn’t help it. and they decided there were still lots of unmarked materials, [enough for] another second year. But I was definitely told, “This it it!”
So I got an appointment for a second year and the Berlin reserves give you a leave of absence for another year. In that second year something happened which the British are always very unhappy about. Rothschild got into financial troubles and he sold his collection to the American Museum, so suddenly 280,000 bird skins are housed at American Museum—strongest exactly in the southern regions, Indonesia, the South Sea Islands, New Guinea, where I was strongest, and they needed a new curator for that collection. And here I was, and apparently I’d impressed them all along by my hard work and all that. So they offered me the job! And so suddenly I had a tenured position, so to speak.
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.