Ernst Mayr on Jim Watson and the Double Helix
  Ernst Mayr     Biography    
Recorded: 31 Mar 2002

He, more than anybody else except maybe Linus Pauling… realized that to discover the structure of the DNA at that moment of history was the most important thing in biology. When he worked with Crick, Francis Crick very often went back to his Ph.D. thesis or all sorts of some other things. And Watson was always the one who always brought him back and said, “By god, we got to work on this DNA that’s the important thing!” So he deserves credit for that one! As far as knowledge of the subject matter is concerned, Watson had none! But he knew the one important thing—what’s that famous Isaiah Berlin statement? [What’s] the difference between the fraction and the hedgehog?—you know. If you know the one important thing, that’s really what counts—and that was Watson’s greatness!

Well, you see, he was very much imprinted by Linus Pauling and the alpha helix. But then you see there were other people who worked on the triple helix!

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.