Ernst Mayr on Jim Watson as a Young Man
  Ernst Mayr     Biography    
Recorded: 31 Mar 2002

In Cold Spring Harbor, he was a student of [Salvador] Luria’s. That was the position. And he didn’t mix much with the older generation like myself. He played around with the younger generation including my two daughters. That summer, also Bentley Glass had a daughter, many of the summer visitors had children and they all played with each other. Jim was more with them then with the older people.

I have a place in New Hampshire—and Jim was a visitor there. I don’t know how often, but I certainly know he was a visitor there. Probably more than once. And on one occasion I was cutting down a big tree with a chain saw and I got very tired, and there was another person there, a cytologist from California.

And we were working on this tree [and] the chain saw got stuck I gave it to Jim because I was tired of holding it and he works on the chain saw. Well, we did bring the tree down. Just imagine Jim Watson with a chain saw!

Also at that time—this was one of the typical New England wooden houses which had to be painted all the time. My wife and I, we were painting at the time and we decided to put Jim Watson to work. So he was given a paint pot and a brush and he had to paint it. Nothing special happened. He didn’t upset the paint or anything like that. But anyhow there was Jim Watson painting my country home in New Hampshire.

Now I’ll tell you a few… little flashes of recollections. One year I was in Naples at the station there, and there was Jim. It was the year that he heard that famous lecture by Wilkins, that same year. And Jim and I went to Pompeii together on that occasion, and… I think it was before he listened to the Wilkins lecture but went to Pompeii, so I knew him really quite well. And later on I was co-responsible for his coming to Harvard.

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.