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Ernst Mayr
Ernst Mayr
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Ernst Mayr Interview

The Darwin of the 20th Century

April 5, 2001
Cambridge, Massachusetts

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  Ernst Mayr

To begin at the beginning, Dr. Mayr, what was your childhood like?

Ernst Mayr: I had on the whole a very happy childhood. To begin with, I would say, it looked as wonderful as it could be. After all, I was born in Germany in 1904. At that time, Germany was very prosperous. The world, as a whole, was peaceful and very prosperous. My father had a brilliant career. He was promoted to a justice of the Supreme Court of Bavaria at the very young age of 47. My mother came from a banking family and was very affluent. I had two brothers with whom I got along very well, and everybody in the family was healthy so nothing could have been more wonderful. And then, of course, in 1914 the great catastrophe began, the first World War, in which several of my cousins were killed and other friends, and eventually things got from bad to worse. Then came the post-1918 famine where we really starved. We didn't have enough to eat. And then came the 1923 inflation in which the whole family fortune was wiped out. But in spite of all these misfortunes -- and they were really, really tragic misfortunes we had. And then in 1917 my father died at the young age of 49 from cancer and my mother had to raise us three boys all by herself.

In spite of all these misfortunes and difficulties, the childhood was still a rather happy one because my mother was an absolutely marvelous person who coped with all these difficulties, and I had hobbies and things that I was interested in.

As Darwin put it about himself, I was born a naturalist. At the age of six, already I was a passionate bird watcher. My older brother had an aquarium, which we jointly took care of, and we caught little fish and little sticklebacks in the streams and ponds of the neighborhood, and snails and things, and watched all the water life, the larvae of insects living in the water. And my mother was a great collector of mushrooms. She knew not only the poisonous and the edible ones but she knew everything about the in between kinds of mushrooms, which is the majority. She really knew mushrooms well. And both of my parents took us three boys every weekend on a little excursion, on a hike, on a walk, and we studied the spring flowers or my father took us to a limestone quarry where we found ammonites and other fossils, or we went to a heron colony and watched that. Anyhow I was almost trained to be a naturalist.

[ Key to Success ] Passion

And the most important thing is...

My father had a wonderful library, and we always bought books galore, and I devoured all the books of explorers that went to various places in the world. I admired what Humboldt had done and Bates and Darwin and the Swedish explorers, Sven Hedin and others. I was dreaming all the time about someday being an explorer, going to the tropics, going to the jungles, seeing new things, discovering strange animals and so forth, but of course it was a dream world.

[ Key to Success ] Vision

In the meantime I went dutifully to the gymnasium, the German equivalent of the high school. I prepared myself for a medical career because my family was definitely a medical family. My father's brother was a medical man. There were three generations of doctors prior to my father's generation, and I was to be the doctor of my generation. I didn't mind that at all. I liked the idea. When my father died of cancer it confirmed my desire to be a doctor because I said, "Surely something could have been done to save his life," As a young person, one is full of such ideas. I finished my high school and I started medical school and right at that period something very unexpected happened.

On one of my bird watching excursions, and I went out to the field almost every day after I finished the gymnasium, I saw -- on a pond -- I saw a duck with a red bill, and I said, "I've never heard of a duck with a red bill. What can this possibly be?" And I dashed back on my bicycle to the town of Dresden, where we were living at the time, and tried to find somebody to confirm it because I said, "Well, if somebody else doesn't see it, nobody will ever believe that I saw such a thing." And, of course, I couldn't find anybody and eventually at the meeting of the Dresden Ornithological Society, I met a pediatrician who said to me, "Well, I don't know whether you saw this or not, but why don't you tell it to Germany's leading ornithologist, Professor Stresemann in Berlin?" And I said, "Well, how should I ever get in touch with him?" And he said, "Well, that's easy. He and I are very good friends. We studied together. I'll write you a letter of introduction and when you go to your university town you have to go through Berlin anyhow to change trains. Why don't you stop for a while and see him," and so forth. And so I did.


I went to the museum and I met Professor Stresemann, who greatly impressed me, even though I now have reconstructed, he was only 34 years old at the time. He demanded that he could see my daily notebooks of my bird observations, which I kept very carefully and made all sorts of sketches and everything else. Then he asked me questions about birds, one after the other, then he showed me specimens, and that was the hardest part because the specimens in the trays in the museum didn't look at all like the birds in the field. But anyhow when it was all finished, he said, "Well yes, I believe you, and I'm going to publish your observation." And he said, "What you saw was a Red-crested Pochard. That's a Mediterranean duck. Every once in a long while one of them strays across the Alps to Central Europe. The last one that did so before your observation..." this was 1923 "...the last one before that was in 1846." So it really was a strange thing. So he published it and a little friendship developed between myself and Stresemann, who was much taken by my incredible enthusiasm.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

Was that your publication, or did he author the paper?

Ernst Mayr: Oh, it was my publication. In fact, it was my first publication. 1923.

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This page last revised on Apr 14, 2014 12:06 EDT