Ernst Mayr on Milislav Demerec
  Ernst Mayr     Biography    
Recorded: 31 Mar 2002

[Milislav] Demerec…was not really a population geneticist and he very soon switched over to bacterial genetics. You may have seen a letter of mine that I’ve written to Wallace and to Jim Watson saying, “You ought to pay more attention to Demerec.” He was a key figure in the development of bacterial genetics, and it’s not found in the literature anywhere.

Demerec, in a way was—how shall I put it?—you can’t call him a funny person, but he was old worldly—let’s put it that way.

Cold Spring Harbor in those days never had any money… Demerec always had to scrounge around to find a few cents for this and that and so forth. When some old chair was finally totally falling apart, somewhere he would find some other old chair somewhere to replace it. That was Demerec! That’s what we all laughed about.

But really he was—very few people know that—at least this is what I heard, that he was really the one that developed the strain of penicillin that was finally so productive. Who has ever given him credit for that? I mean Demerec is one of these really neglected people. And I’ve always felt that more should be done about Demerec.

He had a little trouble with English. He had a funny way of talking which people sort of imitated. He would say, after he said half a sentence, “duh” and people would imitate that.

He was too modest. He was a very modest person. A nice person, but not exciting: he wasn’t a story teller or anything like this, and of course the fact the way he’s been ignored in spite of his achievements is sort of indicative. I mean, you get other people—let’s say Stephen Jay Gould—who is all over every paper and everything. Then when you ask people what is the great achievement [of Gould], what is the great discovery he made—what is the thing that they say, “Well, now Gould—what did he really think? Well, what about this punctuated equilibria. But after all, that wasn’t his discovery…” and so on and so forth.

So it depends on personality how well known a scientist is. Demerec’s personality was just so quiet and retreating, but without Demerec, Cold Spring Harbor would have folded up completely. He got it through the difficult period.

He didn’t even have to do all the things for the Biological Laboratory; it was all unselfishness on his part.

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.

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