Ernst Mayr

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Ernst Mayr : biography

July 5, 1904 – February 3, 2005

At the International Zoological Congress at Budapest in 1927, Mayr was introduced by Stresemann to banker and naturalist Walter Rothschild, who asked him to undertake an expedition to New Guinea on behalf of himself and the American Museum of Natural History in New York. In New Guinea, Mayr collected several thousand bird skins (he named 26 new bird species during his lifetime) and, in the process also named 38 new orchid species. During his stay in New Guinea, he was invited to accompany the Whitney South Seas Expedition to the Solomon Islands. Also, while in New Guinea, he visited the Lutheran missionaries Otto Thiele and Christian Keyser, in the Finschhafen district; there, while in conversation with his hosts, he uncovered the discrepancies in Hermann Detzner’s popular book, Four Years among the Cannibals in German Guinea from 1914 to the Truce, in which Detzner claimed to have seen the interior, discovered several species of flora and fauna, while remaining only steps ahead of the Australian patrols sent to capture him.

He returned to Germany in 1930 and in 1931 he accepted a curatorial position at the American Museum of Natural History, where he played the important role of brokering and acquiring the Walter Rothschild collection of bird skins, which was being sold in order to pay off a blackmailer. During his time at the museum he produced numerous publications on bird taxonomy, and in 1942 his first book, Systematics and the Origin of Species, which completed the evolutionary synthesis started by Darwin.

After Mayr was appointed at the American Museum of Natural History, he influenced American ornithological research by mentoring young birdwatchers. Mayr was surprised at the differences between American and German birding societies. He noted that the German society was "far more scientific, far more interested in life histories and breeding bird species, as well as in reports on recent literature."Barrow, Mark V. 1998. A Passion for Birds: American Ornithology after Audubon. Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-04402-3

Mayr organized a monthly seminar under the auspices of the Linnean Society of New York. Under the influence of J. A. Allen, Frank Chapman, and Jonathan Dwight, the society concentrated on taxonomy and later became a clearing house for bird banding and sight records.

Mayr encouraged his Linnaean Society seminar participants to take up a specific research project of their own. Under Mayr’s influence one of them, Joseph Hickey, went on to write A Guide to Birdwatching (1943). Hickey remembered later, "Mayr was our age and invited on all our field trips. The heckling of this German foreigner was tremendous, but he gave tit for tat, and any modern picture of Dr E. Mayr as a very formal person does not square with my memory of the 1930s. He held his own." A group of eight young birdwatchers from The Bronx later became the Bronx County Bird Club, led by Ludlow Griscom. "Everyone should have a problem" was the way one Bronx County Bird Club member recalled Mayr’s refrain.

Mayr said of his own involvement with the local birdwatchers: "In those early years in New York when I was a stranger in a big city, it was the companionship and later friendship which I was offered in the Linnean Society that was the most important thing in my life."

Mayr also greatly influenced the American ornithologist Margaret Morse Nice. Mayr encouraged her to correspond with European ornithologists and helped her in her landmark study on song sparrows. Nice wrote to Joseph Grinnell in 1932, trying to get foreign literature reviewed in the Condor: "Too many American ornithologists have despised the study of the living bird; the magazines and books that deal with the subject abound in careless statements, anthropomorphic interpretations, repetition of ancient errors, and sweeping conclusions from a pitiful array of facts. … in Europe the study of the living bird is taken seriously. We could learn a great deal from their writing." Mayr ensured that Nice could publish her two-volume Studies in the Life History of the Song Sparrow. He found her a publisher, and her book was reviewed by Aldo Leopold, Joseph Grinnell, and Jean Delacour. Nice dedicated her book to "My Friend Ernst Mayr."