Ernst Mayr on Theodosius Dobzhansky
  Ernst Mayr     Biography    
Recorded: 31 Mar 2002

My meeting Dobzhansky is a very interesting story. I’m going back now to about the year 1930. I was disgusted with the geneticists because the population geneticists always worked as if there was only one population. They weren’t interested in anything else—they gave us all a wonderful formula [for] what happens—the turnover in genes and the population.

But the problems that I was interested in were of course the problems of speciation and molecular evolution. The real evolution! The turnover of genes in a population—that wasn’t evolution, you know, for a naturalist like myself.

And suddenly, one day in 1933, I read a paper in some journal; I think it was Biologiso Dalblat (??—German Biology Journal). I read it, and by god, here was a geneticist who talked about my kind of problems—and I was delighted! I said, “Oh!” I was just overjoyed. And I did something that I have never done before in my life—I wrote him a fan letter. He was in Pasadena at that time—1933 this was. And so we corresponded. Then in ’36, he came to Cold Spring Harbor prior to giving the Jessup Lectures [at Columbia University]. He spent the whole summer in Cold Spring Harbor. There I saw a good deal of him. He came and visited me at the American Museum [of Natural History] and I showed him all these beautiful cases of speciation, and we became very close friends.

Then I visited him [when] I was going to Pasadena in 1939 on the way to a congress. Then, of course, later on in the same year ’39, he came to Columbia University, which the historians have all very much deplored because all of our conversations by word of mouth or telephone, and no correspondence about all the brilliant ideas we might have possibly exchanged!

For about 17 years I considered him my best friend. Now I’m sure Dobzhansky did not consider me his best friend because he must have had at least ten best friends. Ten people that thought that he was their best friend. He was extremely popular, very charismatic and we agreed, on the whole, quite well! Although for a while he was he too much under Sewall Wright’s influence, and gradually he shook that off. In fact, Sewall Wrightian shook it off earlier than Dobzhansky himself.

There was the famous Linanthus paper—I don’t know if you know the literature. So Wright already had given up some of his ideas that this was all new to him—accident, and so when Dobzhansky was still in his subsequent publications following the good old Sewall Wright party line.

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.