Ernst Walter Mayr was born on 5 July 1904 in Kempten in southern Bavaria, Germany, and passed away quietly and peacefully on 3 February 2005 in Bedford, Massachusetts. His two daughters were at his bedside during his last hours. At the time of his death, he was the oldest member of the AOU and one of its longest acting, having joined in 1929. He was elected a fellow in 1937 and served as president from 1957 to 1959.
Inspired by his parents’ interest in natural history, he became a naturalist at an early age and remained one throughout his life. By the time he was a teenager, Ernst could identify all of the local birds by sight as well as by call. Just after graduating from the Gymnasium in Dresden in 1923, he observed a pair of Red-crested Pochards, the first that had been seen in central Germany since 1846. Armed with a letter of introduction, Ernst interrupted his trip to the University of Greifswald and medical studies to visit Erwin Stresemann at the Natural History Museum in Berlin. Stresemann was convinced of Ernst’s sighting of the ducks and, impressed with his enthusiasm for ornithology, invited Ernst to work in the museum during vacations. Soon Ernst became enmeshed in systematic ornithology. As he said many years later, this was as if he had entered paradise. Stresemann convinced Mayr to change from medical studies to zoology and ornithology, with a promise of an expedition to a tropical land once he completed his Ph.D. Before starting his studies with Stresemann, Mayr completed his basic medical courses at Greifswald, becoming a Candidate in Medicine, which would allow him to complete his medical training if his plans to become a zoologist did not work out—a concern that proved unwarranted.
Ernst Mayr started his training in Berlin in March 1925 and completed his Ph.D. in June 1926, just before his 22nd birthday. He began an assistantship at the Berlin Museum on 1 July 1926. Several attempts at the promised tropical expedition failed until a combined expedition to New Guinea for Lord Rothschild at the Tring Museum and for the Berlin Museum (with additional support from the American Museum of Natural History [AMNH] and Dr. L. Sanford) was organized. The work in New Guinea was successful and before Ernst could return to Europe in 1929, he was invited to take part in the AMNH’s Whitney South Sea Expedition to the Solomon Islands. Ernst finally returned to Germany in April 1930, having been away for over two years.
Mayr’s work in the Solomon Islands greatly impressed Dr. Leonard C. Sanford, a patron of the AMNH Department of Ornithology, who urged Mayr’s appointment to the department to work on the collections amassed by the Whitney South Sea Expedition. Mayr arrived in New York on 19 January 1931 for a one-year temporary appointment. With the acquisition of the Rothschild collection, Mayr was offered a permanent position at the AMNH. He stayed at the AMNH for the next two decades as the Whitney-Rothschild Curator, working on perhaps the best collection of birds that had ever existed for the analysis of geographic variation, speciation, and island biogeography.
During his time at the AMNH, Mayr published his List of New Guinea Birds (1941), which is still the basic reference on this avifauna, and Systematics and the Origin of Species (1942), which propelled him into evolutionary biology and later into the history and philosophy of biology.
Ernst married Margarete Simon (1912–1990) in the spring of 1935; they had two daughters, Christa and Susanne. In 1937, they moved to Tenafly, New Jersey, where they lived until leaving for Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1953.
In 1953, shortly after the death of Dr. Stanford, Mayr accepted an invitation to join the Museum of Comparative Zoology (MCZ) at Harvard University as an Alexander Agassiz Professor. This was a research position and did not entail work in the Bird Department at the MCZ or hold teaching responsibilities. Yet he did both. Accepting the MCZ position meant that Ernst had to leave his beloved Whitney-Rothschild collection, and subsequently he did little empirical research. He did not leave ornithology, though, and he assumed the editorship of Peters’s Check-list of Birds of the World, organizing and overseeing the publication of volumes 8–15 and the second edition of volume 1. He served as the president of the AOU (1957– 59) and of the 13th International Ornithological Congress, in Ithaca, New York, in 1962.
Ernst went to Harvard to become more involved in teaching, which included teaching graduate students. His scholarly interests turned first to evolutionary analyses (Animal Species and Evolution, 1963), then to the history of biology (The Growth of Biological Thought, 1982), and finally to the philosophy of biology (Toward a New Philosophy of Biology, 1988, and What Makes Biology Unique, 2004). Ernst retained his interest in ornithology to the end of his life and was always most happy to discuss avian biology with visitors.
The move to Harvard allowed Ernst to eliminate the hour-long commute between his home and the AMNH. He found an apartment within walking distance of the MCZ and, subsequently, a house even closer on Chauncey Street. His walk to and from the MCZ was an important part of his daily activity, as was an additional long walk later in the afternoon. It was always amusing that in his walk to and from the museum, Ernst took diagonals whenever possible, saying that it cut the distance he had to walk, which seemed illogical, given his longer, voluntary walks in the afternoon. Those walks, which he made into his last year of life, may well have had an important influence on his general health and long life.
The move to Cambridge also permitted Ernst and Gretel to achieve another long-desired goal: a home in the countryside to be used on weekends and during the summers. They found a former farm with a badly rundown house, on a dirt road bordering a lake, in the shadow of Pack Momadnock Mountain in Wilton, New Hampshire. It had everything they wanted. “The Farm,“ as it was known, was purchased in 1954 and was improved over the years. The Mayrs were there every possible weekend from spring to Thanksgiving and every summer that they were not traveling. Ernst could continue his interests as a naturalist and entertain guests in a pleasant setting. Several research projects were carried out on The Farm, such as Hans Loehrl’s study of the Red-breasted Nuthatch and Ross Lein’s thesis on warbler behavior.
Ernst was a disciplined, hardworking person with a critical, analytical mind. Many workers were awed and ill-at-ease in his presence, which he disliked. Once he remarked to me when I was a graduate student: “My bark is worse than my bite.“ He was also a dedicated teacher, and as such found it difficult to let an erroneous idea go uncorrected. Yet it was possible to argue with him, though one had to be certain of one’s own position, and he would readily change his position if it was shown to be wrong or indefensible. Mayr was very informal, a result of his years living in the United States, and asked younger colleagues and his students, once they obtained their Ph.D., to call him Ernst. This was a bit difficult at first, especially if one was raised to address one’s elders formally, but he insisted, and after a while calling him Ernst came naturally. Ernst was fiercely loyal to his friends, with whom he corresponded throughout his life. One of the sad aspects of a long life, as he told me a number of times, was that so many of his old friends were gone. He was generous in discussing research projects with younger workers and reading the resulting manuscripts. Numerous visitors stayed with the Mayrs in their home in Tenafly, Cambridge, and at their rural retreat in New Hampshire. Ernst and Gretel played important roles in the AOU project that sent care packages to European ornithologists following World War II, as well as sending a large number of packages independently of this cooperative ornithological effort.
Detailed coverage of Mayr’s work in systematics, evolution, and the history and philosophy of biology was published in honor of his 90th birthday (J. Greene and M. Ruse, “Special issue on Ernst Mayr at ninety“ in Biology and Philosophy 9:263–435, 1994). A symposium presented at the 2004 AOU meeting in Quebec in honor of his 100th birthday, with a CD of an accompanying interview, will soon appear in the Ornithological Monographs series. A brief account of his life, “Ernst Mayr at 100,“ appeared last year (Auk 121:637–651, 2004). A book-length biography with the proposed title Ornithology, Evolution and Philosophy. The Life and Science of Ernst Mayr (1904–2005) “Darwin of the 20th Century“ is being completed by Jürgen Haffer.
Ernst Mayr was arguably one of the greatest ornithologists and evolutionists of the 20th century, and an outstanding biologist. He was a leader in the history of biology and one of the driving forces behind the emergence of the philosophy of biology in the early 1960s. His long life provided a connection for many workers to what most of us would consider the dim past. He was well known to scholars around the world and will be missed by all. For me, he was a teacher, mentor, and close friend for more than 50 years.