Ernst Mayr on CSHL: Drosophila Research
  Ernst Mayr     Biography    
Recorded: 31 Mar 2002

They worked fine except we both knew—Dobzhansky and I— that we really didn’t do the right kind of experiments. We made experiments with male choice and Drosophila as well as most other organisms. Sexually reproducing organisms it later became very clear, that the choice is really female choice. But in order to see which male or females had chosen, you would have to raise your offspring and all that, and it was a very long complicated thing.

The experiments were very interesting. They showed of course that there was choice and that the species recognized each other—and it was the details. For instance I amputated antenna, which is much too gross an experiment, you know, because several of the sensory organs are on the antennas so still the antenna is an acoustical olfactory and things like that. But we did find out quite a few things and it led the basis for later experiments.

I took two glass plates and separated them by wax and closed them up except for a little funnel. That was so I could observe them well under the primacoral microscope. I still have that gadget somewhere. But in a glass vial they get out of focus, at once by using these two glass plates they were always in focus, you see. The details of the courtship dance of _________ (unclear), that all could be seen beautifully in that little glass thing.

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.