Ernst Mayr on Science & Writing
  Ernst Mayr     Biography    
Recorded: 31 Mar 2002

Let me first stay that how to write was certainly very much stressed in German schools. And I think that’s where I learned how to write. Later on when I had students including something like 17 or 18 or 19 Ph.D.s—whenever they would send me a paper, a draft of a paper, or part of a paper, or something like that, the greatest amount of work I always had was straightening out their English.

I had only one student and his name was John Alcock, who has written actually some natural history books for the public, who could really write. All the others just didn’t know how to write. I don’t know, I should probably say they should go back to school, but obviously there were in school and didn’t learn it—so I don’t how they learn it.

You have to just consult a person who knows how to write. Now a person like S. Jay Gould, Steve Gould—he knows how to write, but…the majority of people—I had one student, I won’t mention his name, who’s published for something like thirty years now or so, and he still doesn’t know how to write. The stuff you read it and try to figure out what does it really mean!

I wouldn’t be able to speak so fluently into your microphone when you ask me a question—I mean I don’t hem and haw. I don’t start all over again. I have fully formed sentence, that is in my brain and comes right out. So I don’t find writing difficult, but the first version—all my writing is done by dictating into a tape recorder. And then with the modern word processor I get the product—and I make all the corrections and then the second time, I convert it into the second version.

I have a paper there on the table, which I hope to finish maybe in the next ten days and this is the tenth version of this paper. So in spite of the fact that I can write well, and I still constantly polish, move paragraphs around, have some new ideas, stick them in still, find out if I stuck them in at the wrong place, and shift it to another place. So my writing is a combination of clear thinking and constant attention to the detail.

I write two or three letters practically every day. I’m one of the last survivors, a living fossil of the letter world. But I don’t write literary things.

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.