Ernst Mayr on Jim Watson, “Lucky Jim”
  Ernst Mayr     Biography    
Recorded: 31 Mar 2002

Watson does something that does come out of his own later writings after The Double Helix. There were so many problems that had to be solved. Particularly of translation and all that sort of thing. And the structure of RNA and eventually the code—cracking the code.

Watson, as he says in his own books, he worked on all of these problems. And he fell flat on his nose on all of these problems. So except for this luck he had with the double helix, he was a total failure!

I mean I exaggerate. But the point is that later on he proved he wasn’t a failure because he built up Cold Spring Harbor from nothing. It was a bankrupt place really when he took it over and he built it up into the world’s most flourishing molecular laboratory. And that he would have that capacity…and now I say something funny—considering that he really had no manners! An incredible lack of manners—that he was able to get money out of everybody. How he did it I have no idea!

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.