From 1931 onward Ernst Mayr attended all or nearly all annual meetings of the national ornithological organization, the American Ornithologists' Union (AOU). He observed the performance and oral contributions critically and compared their standards with those of the well-known German Ornithological Society. Together with several other young colleagues, especially H. Friedmann, R. Boulton, J. Van Tyne, also J. Grinnell and P. A. Taverner he soon set out to modernize the organization and ornithological research in North America generally. In 1933 already, Mayr was on the Program Committee for the 50th Anniversary meeting of the AOU held at the AMNH and tried very hard to put together a well-balanced program. He recommended, for example, that certain zoologists who had been using birds as their experimental material be invited to present papers at this meeting. Thus, Professor L. C. Dunn of the Department of Zoology, Columbia University (New York) spoke on "Heredity of Morphological Variation in Birds" and Mayr gave a review paper on "The Physiology of Sexual Dimorphism in Birds." After the meeting he worked on an unpublished analysis of "The trend of interest in American ornithology as demonstrated by the percentage of various subjects in the total of papers presented at the annual AOU meeting." He felt that in the future, such matters as nomenclature and faunistic lists should be eliminated from the program. The number of papers on taxonomic topics should be reduced in favor of life history, behavior and ecology. As long as T. S. Palmer was Secretary of the AOU, there seemed to be no chance for improvement because "he is neither a scientist nor an ornithologist; narrow and dictatorial." Mayr opposed the custom of paying one third of the total income of the Society to the Secretary, Treasurer and Editor for their "services" and insisted that the election to fellowship should be decided entirely on ornithological merit documented by relevant publications. Moreover, there should be definite time limits not only for the President, but also for the Secretary and Editor of the The Auk, the Society's scientific journal.
When, at the 1935 meeting, the "Washingtonians" were again able to elect one of their "buddies" into the only opening for Fellow, the reformers "became very active in AOU politics with the major aim of breaking the total domination of the AOU by the 'Washington crowd.' They were mostly staff members of the Biological Survey, later called Fish and Wildlife Survey. By using all sorts of parliamentary tricks the Washingtonians succeeded in electing most of the officers and other Biological Survey people as Fellows. One year when they pushed through a person with the name of Preble who had never been distinguished, and in fact had not published anything in ornithology in 15 or 20 years, my tolerance had reached an end. Mrs. Nice had also been on the slate, and she was by an order of magnitude more deserving than Preble. Fortunately, there were a few others who felt like me, particularly Herbert Friedmann who, although also a Washingtonian, shared my sentiments. The trick of the Washingtonians was that the first ballot for any office or honor was called a nomination ballot. The results of this first vote were put on the blackboard and all the Washingtonians had reached a consensus before the meeting whom to nominate. As a result, invariably their candidate had three or four times as many votes as any other nominee. We young Turks adopted their method. We established a carefully chosen slate of the people we considered most deserving of election and then went to everybody else (except the Washingtonians) urging them to vote for this slate. Since these were all good candidates we had little trouble persuading them. When the first election took place after we had started our campaign the Washingtonians were utterly astonished that all of a sudden for each opening there was one nominee who had considerably more votes than their candidate. It took only a couple of years before we had gotten the Washingtonians out of all the offices and since we maintained the system they never again had a chance to push an unworthy candidate through. It was at this time that through the influence of Grinnell and Alden Miller in Berkeley and of Van Tyne in Michigan American ornithology slowly shifted into an entirely different direction. The AOU was still backward as shown particularly by the contents of the Auk. For a while the journal ofthe Wilson Club, the Wilson Bulletin, was indeed abetter journal than the Auk, and this is where I published my paper on the 'History of the North American Bird Fauna' (1946h) and where Delacour and I published our subsequently so famous classification of the duck family (1945e)."
A leading voice among those demanding change and modernization in North American ornithology was Ernst Mayr (Barrow 1998:190-195). As shown above, he played a key role in furthering both ornithological practice and the rigor with which it was pursued. The editor of the Auk was replaced in October 1936 and Mayr immediately sent to the incoming new editor Glover M. Allen a list of suggestions for improving the journal. Several other changes were also approved at that time. In preparation of the next annual meeting Mayr circulated a list of suggestions to his colleagues (Friedmann, Grinnell, Boulton, Taverner, Griscom) entitled Proposed Amendments to the Constitution and the By-Laws of the American Ornithologists' Union (7 pages including his detailed reasoning): (1) Election of Fellows should be based exclusively on outstanding ornithological accomplishments, (2) Inactive Fellows (who have not published technical papers in five consecutive years) should be transferred to the status of Emeritus Fellows, (3) Appointment of an editorial committee to support the editor of the Auk, (4) Secretary and Treasurer should hold honorary positions without receiving remuneration (except reimbursement for traveling and other expenses); this would reduce the overhead and enable the editor to publish colored plates, distribution maps and possibly even monographs as supplements to the Auk, (5) Publication in the Auk of the balance sheets presented by the treasurer at each annual meeting, (6) Nomination of a Program Committee at each annual meeting to prepare next year's meeting and to balance technical and more popular topics, etc. Mayr here also suggested that at annual meetings, symposia should be organized on particular topics, e.g., "The Species Problem, Genetics and Taxonomy, the History of the American bird fauna, Climate and Distribution, the Life History of shore birds (or other bird families), the Ecology of North American habitats, Bird Migration and Climatic Factors, Bird Migration and recent physiological investigations, Bird Behavior, Bird Sociology, etc. [...] In short, the program for the annual meeting should be a work of art and not an accident!" (quoted from an attachment to a letter from E. Mayr to J. Grinnell dated 14 October 1937; archives of the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, University of California, Berkeley).
Some of these proposals were accepted at the 1937 meeting and most of the rest in one form or another during the next 5 years. On 5 December 1937 Mayr wrote to E. Stresemann (transl.):
"I was afraid to be outlawed but instead half of my proposals have been accepted, Palmer was brought down and Mrs. Nice and myself elected as Fellows. Friedmann is President, Chapin and Peters Vice Presidents [...]. All in all very pleasing. I now work toward next year; I wish that Elliot Howard will be elected as Honorary Fellow -►
Fig. 3.11. Ernst Mayr as President of the American Ornithologists' Union (AOU), 75th anniversary meeting in New York (14-19 October 1958). Persons in the front row from right to left are: (NN), Hoyes Lloyd, Dean Amadon, Ernst Mayr, George H. Lowery, Eugene Eisenmann, Charles Sibley, Finn Salomonsen, Austin Rand, Vesta and Erwin Stresemann (AMNH Department of Ornithology archives)
and Lorenz, Meise and Tinbergen as Corresponding Fellows. Those are the ones who, in my opinion, deserve it most."
It is understandable that one or two of his colleagues misinterpreted Mayr's drive for improving the AOU and believed that this foreigner, with ample self-confidence and energy, was primarily interested in himself assuming one of the leading positions in the organization.
In 1937, President Friedmann established a Research Committee with various subcommittees of which E. Mayr headed the one for "Migration, homing and related phenomena." He as well as H. Friedmann, L. J. Cole and P. A. Taverner presented their reports at the 1938 annual meeting (see Auk 56:113, 1939). The reformer had been successful. Mayr remained involved in the affairs of the Society and introduced many changes in the time to come. For example, he submitted a proposal to regulate the election of vice-presidents and, in 1957-1959, he served as the President of the AOU. In this capacity he managed the planning and invitation of international guest speakers for the Society's 75th anniversary in October 1958 (Fig. 3.11).
Through his activities in the AOU and the Linnaean Society of New York Mayr contributed effectively to "biologize" North American ornithology. In later years, several of his PhD students at Harvard studied the behavior of herons, flycatchers, tits, and wood warblers (p. 262).
Was this article helpful?