Ernst Mayr on Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory
  Ernst Mayr     Biography    
Recorded: 31 Mar 2002

Now Cold Spring Harbor was at that time something totally different from what it is now. It was always a natural history place.

Oh, this would be let’s say between 1931 and let’s say 1936 or so—in that early period. And I did that Symposia… I did not go to the Quantitative Symposia—they were above my head. I had been to Cold Spring Harbor two or three times. But I was working on the problem of mate selection in birds—to what extent it was purely genetic or learning when they were young in the nest and so forth. And this created great logistic difficulties because they had to keep the different species of birds in different rooms, and it just overwhelmed me—and I didn’t have anybody to care for feeding them and all that, and then I finally gave up that project in despair.

I told this to Dobzhanksy and that was…it must have been ’39 or ’40, after he had come to New York. He said, “Oh, why don’t you do the same sort of thing with Drosophila?” And of course I had heard about Drosophila, but I didn’t know that Drosophila could possibly also have behavior. But Dobzhansky persuaded me and he said, “I’m going to spend next summer in Cold Spring Harbor, and if you move out there too I can teach you all about it. And you can make your experiments there.” And so that is how I came to Cold Spring Harbor—persuaded by Dobzhansky.

He, of course talked with [Milislav] Demerec—whatever Dobzhansky wanted Demerec always did! So I spent that summer there—and I liked it so much and my family liked it so much that from that year on, every summer we spent at Cold Spring Harbor until finally I went up to Harvard.

In 1953 I moved to Harvard, so in 1952 was the last one where I was so to speak commuting between my job in museum and Cold Spring Harbor. Later on, purely for physical reasons, geography and what not, I lost all contact with Cold Spring Harbor.

Also, of course, eventually [Theodosius] Dobzhansky after a while retried and went to California… There was a turnover in Cold Spring Harbor. Bruce Wallace left and went somewhere teaching, and so on and so forth. The Cold Spring Harbor that I know—I never was in Cold Spring Harbor for any length of time in the period when Jim Watson was running it.

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.