Ernst Mayr Biography

Ernst Walter Mayr, a German-born American biologist, was a pioneering figure in the field of biology in the 20th Century. Known for his work as a taxonomist, ornithologist, tropical explorer, and historian of science, Mayr made significant contributions to the study of population genetics and evolution. His groundbreaking research on the theory of evolution revolutionized the field of genetics and evolutionary biology, building upon the works of Mendel and Darwin. Mayr’s extensive work on avian taxonomy resulted in the discovery and naming of numerous bird species and sub-species. He also proposed a new definition of species, emphasizing the importance of interbreeding among individuals. In addition to his scientific achievements, Mayr dedicated his later years to integrating biology into the philosophy of science. Explore further to learn about the remarkable life and works of Ernst Walter Mayr.

Quick Facts

  • Also Known As: Ernst Walter Mayr
  • Died At Age: 100
  • Died on: February 3, 2005
  • Place of Death: Bedford
  • Education: University of Greifswald, Humboldt University of Berlin
  • Awards:
    • 1994 – International Prize for Biology
    • 1958 – Darwin-Wallace Medal
    • 1970 – National Medal of Science for Biological Sciences
    • 1999 – Crafoord Prize in Biosciences

Childhood & Early Life

On July 5, 1904, Ernst Mayr was born in Kempten, Germany, to parents Dr. Otto Mayr and Helen Pusinelli. Dr. Otto Mayr, a law practitioner by profession, was a keen naturalist and took his kids on visits to instill in them a love and understanding of their natural surroundings. From an early age, Mayr showed interest in ornithology. The family moved to Dresden after his father passed away when Ernst was in his early teens, where he studied at the ‘Staatsgymnasium’ (‘Royal Gymnasium’). At high school, he was a member of the ‘Saxony Ornithologists’ Association’. At the association, he made acquaintance with Rudolf Zimmermann, the renowned ornithologist who decided to take Mayr under his tutelage.

Education and Career

Ernst pursued medicine at the ‘University of Greifswald’ beginning in 1923. He chose Greifswald over other renowned universities because it was an interesting and rich ornithological area. In 1925, Erwin Stresemann, an ornithologist who came across Mayr’s work, suggested that he take up biology full-time to pursue his natural talents for ornithology. Mayr acquired his PhD in ornithology from the ‘University of Berlin’ in 1926, achieving this feat at the age of 21. After completing his doctorate, Ernst joined the ‘Berlin Museum’. While at a zoological conference in 1927, he was introduced by Stresemann to Walter Rothschild, a banker with a love for nature. Rothschild appointed Mayr to lead an expedition organized for the ‘American Museum of Natural History’. In New Guinea, Mayr studied and catalogued bird skins, and also named 38 previously unknown species of orchids. He also pointed out discrepancies in the facts offered by Hermann Detzner in his book, ‘Four Years among the Cannibals in German Guinea from 1914 to the Truce’. In 1930, the expedition ended and Mayr was appointed curator of the ‘American Museum of Natural History’, where he wrote comprehensive compilations on the taxonomy of birds. In 1942, he published his most significant book, ‘Systematics and the Origin of Species’, furthering the concept of evolutionary synthesis pioneered by Darwin. A few years later, Mayr joined the faculty of ‘Harvard University’ and served as the director of the ‘Museum of Comparative Zoology’ from 1961-1970. Even after retiring in 1975, he continued to publish works on evolutionary biology.

Major Works

Mayr presented his ideas on evolution and species in his most significant book ‘Systematics and the Origin of Species’ in 1942. His theory integrated and progressed the works of Gregor Mendel (genetics) and Charles Darwin (natural selection).

Awards & Achievements

Ernst Mayr received the ‘Darwin-Wallace Medal’ in 1958 for his work on the definition of species and his contribution to advancing Darwin and Mendel’s theories on evolution. In 1969, he was awarded the prestigious ‘National Medal of Science for Biological Studies’ by the President of the United States for his contribution to the field of biology. He also received the ‘International Prize for Biology’ in 1994 for his work in advancing research on fundamental biology.

Personal Life & Legacy

In 1931, Mayr moved from Germany to the United States to join the American Museum of Natural History. While in America, the Nazis took over Germany. Ernst, grateful to be safe in New York, settled permanently in the United States. In 1935, he married Margarete Simon, and they had two daughters. Their marriage lasted more than 55 years until his wife passed away. Ernst Mayr passed away on February 3, 2005, at the age of 100, in Bedford, Massachusetts, after being diagnosed with cancer a few weeks prior to his death. In honor of this esteemed biologist, Harvard University established the ‘Ernst Mayr Library of the Museum of Comparative Zoology’.

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