Ernst Mayr on Max Delbruck
  Ernst Mayr     Biography    
Recorded: 31 Mar 2002

In front of Hooper there was a wooden railing—sort of a low one. One sat there in the evening on this railing and talked, and I remember that I think at that time Delbrück lived in Hooper and I lived in Williams. Anyhow, I sat there one evening on that railing and Max Delbrück sat next to me and started to ask me questions about evolution. And I answered them as well as I could—and our conversation drifted to something else. Next day when I sat there he came again and sat down next to me and asked me about evolution. I don’t know whether it was the second time or the third time. Anyhow, I finally asked him, I said, “Max, why do you want to know all that about evolution?” To me he was a budding evolutionist. And he said, “Well, I’m going to give a course on evolution next year.” And I said, “You, give a course on evolution? You don’t know a damn thing about evolution!” He said, “Yes, that’s exactly why I want to give a course.”

Well you see [that] Max Delbrück had much of the same background as I—in German, and so forth. We had a great deal in common, anyhow. What I never quite understood is why he had such a charisma—why he was such an influence. He was—they all looked up to him. They all were I guess a little bit afraid of him. He was a powerful person. He had all sorts of interesting habits. He, for instance, would after a seminar, get up as the first discussion speaker and start with the sentence, “This is the worst seminar I’ve ever heard!” And the poor speaker was absolutely shattered. And finally after Delbrück had done this several times, every time somebody gave a seminar he was beforehand warned, “Don’t be in the slightest affected by this.” But that’s what he will say. That was typical of Max Delbrück.

He, yes, liked to argue with people in discussions—and not leave it alone. I mean he kept on bordering a certain point until everyone else was tired of it. What I never quite understood is—not infrequently, he bet on the wrong horse.

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.