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If you like Ernst Mayr's story, you might also like:
Lee Berger,
Norman Borlaug,
Sylvia Earle,
Jane Goodall,
Stephen Jay Gould,
Donald C. Johanson,
Meave Leakey,
Richard Leakey,
Richard E. Schultes,
James D. Watson,
Tim White and
Edward O. Wilson

Related Links:
Ernst Mayr Library

Jared Diamond on Ernst Mayr

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Ernst Mayr
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Ernst Mayr Interview (page: 2 / 7)

The Darwin of the 20th Century

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  Ernst Mayr

Did Dr. Stresemann continue to take an interest in your career after your first publication?


Ernst Mayr: Stresemann took to me and he saw my enthusiasm and he said, "Would you be interested, in your college vacations, to come here to the museum as a volunteer?" I thought somebody had given me a key to paradise. I said, "Of course, I would," and I did. And he put me to work unpacking new collections that came from expeditions in various places of the world and I was permitted to identify specimens that hadn't been yet identified and so forth. I had a wonderful time, and I had opportunity to talk with Stresemann about all sorts of things. And one day he said to me, after I talked about my dreams about the tropics of expeditions and the jungles and all that, he said to me very seriously, "Now look here, young man. If you become a medical doctor you will never have a chance to go to the tropics, you will be far too busy." When he saw how my face fell, he said, "Well, but there is an alternative. Let me make a proposal. Suppose, after you finish your first half of the medical study... " -- in Germany the preclinical period and the clinical are sharply separated -- "...after you've finished your preclinical period, why don't you stop studying medicine, take a degree in zoology, a Ph.D., and when you have that then I can find a place for you in an expedition somewhere, I'm quite sure."

[ Key to Success ] Passion


Was he trying to convert you away from medicine by doing this?

Ernst Mayr: I'm not so sure, but he really was trying to do me a favor. I was such an enthusiast at that time. Anyhow, I talked it over with my mother and she said, "Well, if that's what you want, go right ahead." She was a wonderful woman. And so I did.


As soon as I had my candidate of medicine degree, I stopped medicine and I went into zoology, and I did something that is almost unbelievable. In 16 months I fulfilled all the requirements of a Ph.D. candidate in zoology, including a semester of philosophy and a great deal of botany and so forth, and I had written my thesis in that time. I was ready for the examination, and on the 24th of June my oral examinations were all completed and I was awarded a Ph.D. in zoology.

[ Key to Success ] Passion


What was your dissertation about?

Ernst Mayr Interview Photo
Ernst Mayr: My dissertation was a biogeographical one. In a way, it was connected with that duck that appeared in Central Europe after 80 years but this dealt with a small finch-like bird, a relative of the canary, also a Mediterranean species, which in the years between about 1770 and the present time, had spread from the Mediterranean on both sides of the Alps into Central Europe. The argument among the ornithologists was that maybe it had been there all along and had just been overlooked before. So my thesis was to trace the movement through all the natural history literature of all the little local societies and whatnot, and then try to explain it in ecological terms.

Did you have to go through museum collections to document the presence of specimens from an earlier period?

Ernst Mayr: No. The observers are the really important thing. There are bird watchers everywhere, and always have been, right back to the year 1800 and earlier. They would record what they saw, just like the Vicar of Selborne, who recorded every day what he saw. But I had to get the most obscure natural history journals, provincial societies in France for instance, and I had to do a great deal of library work and also constantly interpret what I read, because sometimes people would record that bird and it really wasn't true. You have to know who was reliable and who wasn't. Anyhow, I got together a very convincing story, and mapped the spread of the bird in 25-year periods and developed a number of ecological theories about spreading. I just read, within the last year or so, somebody giving me credit of having been the first to have developed this biogeographic ecological theory. Anyhow, it was printed the next year in the big German ornithological journal.

You also worked on bird migration early on, didn't you?

Ernst Mayr Interview Photo
Ernst Mayr: Yes. I was quite interested in bird migration, in connection with the spreading of the Serin Finch, which was the bird that I worked on. When a bird spreads northward into new territory, what happens in the winter? Does it stay there now, or does it go back to its home territory? These connections between the breeding place in an unsuitable climatic region and the winter quarters, how this developed and whether the winter quarters are always the same, whether there is any competition between the wintering temperate zone birds in the tropics, and all that. I was very much interested in all those questions. Just two weeks ago I was sent a manuscript by a young man who had taken up exactly these same questions, not knowing that I had worked on this sort of thing and had developed theories about it.

Perhaps what was most important was that I showed in how many places wintering birds occur in the same places where other populations of that very same species nest and breed and raise young. And there is no interbreeding ever between the wintering birds and the local residents, because their hormonal state is totally different so they just don't even recognize each other as being the same species. I developed a theory that spreading birds, for instance, always pick a few optimal spots to settle down first. Then these became centers of spreading, and they expanded out from these optimal places into less suitable places until finally the whole region was filled with breeding pairs.

In many ways, your theoretical work grew out of biogeography and a real interest in biogeographic patterns, didn't it?

Ernst Mayr: I was very much interested in biogeography. Cleaning out some of my drawers in the museum the other day, I found a lot of notes that I had written in the 1920s. It was material for a book on biogeography, which I was planning to write and which I never wrote. Yes, biogeography was perhaps my foremost interest at that time, as a result of my Ph.D. thesis. I was quite annoyed about a book that was published at that time by Hesse, which was very popular. It was translated into English and called itself Ecological Biogeography. When I studied it, I said, "No, this is not a book on ecological geography. This is a book on geographical ecology." They are two very different things. But we still do not have yet a good book on ecological geography.

There's a book that I now have in press, together with a co-author, Jared Diamond, dealing with the birds of the islands northeast of New Guinea: the Solomon Islands and the Bismarck Archipelago, which usually are combined as Northern Melanesia. We have this book in press right now, and that deals a great deal with the ecology of biogeography. Why are certain species spreading and others not? Which ones disperse most easily? Which can endure competition? Which others cannot endure competition? It is a great deal of ecology related to biogeography. I've sort of come full circle from my early Ph.D. interests to one of the very last things that I will be writing in my life.

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