Ernst Mayr on Influence on Jim Watson
  Ernst Mayr     Biography    
Recorded: 31 Mar 2002

Now there’s another subject where I can really tell you something that is new and interesting and that is Jim Watson.

Now, everybody by now knows that Jim Watson and my older daughter [Christa Mayr] met [him] and [they] flirted with each other, lets put it that way—but my acquaintance with Jim Watson goes much further back, and that’s the part that nobody knows.

One day when I was at the American Museum in New York in my office. I was an orinthologist at that time—I wasn’t even an evolutionist. At least nobody knew I was—but for everybody else I was an ornithologist. And one day Jim Watson’s mother came to see me. And my memory is sufficiently faint, that I don’t know was Jim along with her, [or] Mr. Watson. All I remember is the mother.

And the question she asked me—she said, “My son is wild about birds. Birds is the thing that he’s really interested in. To what college should he go for his bird studies?” Well, listen to that—that was the question. And I said, “It would be a great mistake if he, as a beginning university student, immediately goes somewhere to study birds. He has to get a good biological education first, and then when he is ready to go to graduate school then he can pick a school where birds are the major interest, and at that time I will be glad to advise him.”

Well whether it was my advice or whether they would have done it anyhow, of course, he did exactly that! He went to the University of Chicago, and later on [to] Indiana, and as I have more or less expected when I gave my advice—birds were just forgotten!

However as a joke, I always tell people that I’m the person responsible for the fact of Jim Watson discovered the double helix cause if it hadn’t been for me he would have become an ornithologist.

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.