Fig. 1.1. Family genealogy of the Mayr-Pusinelli lines, the ancestry of Ernst Mayr. The chronological sequence of unidentified brothers and sisters is from left to right; m.-married <-
was Dr. Oscar Mey (1865- ca. 1940). His wife Gretchen, a close friend of Helene Pusinelli from her youth in Dresden, took things into her hands. She decided that Otto Mayr, at 32 still a bachelor, and Helene Pusinelli in distant Dresden, also still unmarried in 1899, were the perfect match. She invited her friend to visit her in Bavaria and then brought the two together. Mrs. Mey's instinct had been sound. The "eligibles" agreed that they were suitable for each other and were married on 24 June 1900 (Fig. 1.2)1
Otto and Helene Mayr first lived in Kempten (Allgäu) where he was a magistrate of the city and here their three sons Otto, Ernst, and Hans were born (Fig. 1.3).2
1 Ernst Mayr and his brothers did quite a bit of genealogical research in old church records across southern Germany during the 1920s. The results indicated—as is also evident from the above account—that there was no Jewish ancestor in their father's or mother's family back at least to the 17th century. Ernst Mayr's emigration from Germany to the United States in 1931—two years prior to the Nazi takeover of the German government—was not motivated by political (but strictly professional) considerations. He had, however, no sympathy for the Nazi regime at all (see p. 300).
2 Ernst Mayr became the longest-living member of the entire family. The life spans of 62 (of a total of 64) nearest ancestors are known. Among these eight (13%) have reached an age of 80 or more years including his mother who was almost 82 years old when she died.
When Ernst was nearly 4 years old his father was transferred as District Prosecuting Attorney to Würzburg on 1 May 1908 and, in December 1913, to Munich as an Associate Justice at the Supreme Court of Bavaria.
Although a jurist by profession, the father was an enthusiastic naturalist and "took the family out on a hike just about every Sunday. We usually took the train somewhere away from Würzburg and then walked cross-country to some other train station or to the terminal of the electric tram near Würzburg. It was on these trips that we collected flowers, mushrooms, fossils in some quarry, or did other natural history studies. When my father heard of a heron colony north of the Aumeister near Munich we also visited it. Otherwise, perhaps more through the interests of my mother, we visited old towns, castles, and villages on weekends and during vacations. The family attitude was rather academic and very much that of upper middle class Germans that one should never stop trying to add to one's 'Bildung'."
Through these nature walks, Ernst became a naturalist at an early age, and his father's interests in history and philosophy broke through in later years when Ernst turned to the study of the history and the philosophy of biology. Holistic philosophies associated with the ideology of "Bildung" (learning and a general knowledge of culture) formed the basis of the educational system of upper middle class Germans who sent their children to the "Humanistisches Gymnasium" (high school)
None of the ancestors reached an age of 90 or higher, the average age at time of death was 63 years.
where they learned Latin and classical Greek followed by a modern language. This reflected a commitment to intellectual synthesis rather than an early specialization (Harwood 1994: 17). The gymnasiums to which the Mayrs sent their sons in Würzburg, Munich, and Dresden were elite schools, the best available in these cities. This education prepared Ernst to deal with complex issues of evolutionary theory and philosophy in later years.
The family was quite well-to-do before the early death of Ernst's father in 1917 and the German hyperinflation during the 1920s. They used to have a servant and at times even a second one. However, they always lived fairly modestly in a large apartment in the city, not in their own house. Like most other people in the country, they had no telephone or gaslight, no running hot water or refrigerator. Food was kept from spoiling during the summer in a big ice box cooled by thick slabs of ice; and, of course, they had no car. For any long distances in the city one used the electric tram.
Ernst was not interested in technical things, as many other boys were, and in school his worst subjects were drawing and singing. Otherwise, however, he was a first-class student with top grades. He did not collect stamps, rocks, or insects but he was an early observer. At the age of about two or three, he knew, like most children, to discriminate all the colors.
"One day my mother gave a tea to her sisters and girlfriends and wanted to brag about my achievement. It was spring and one of the aunts asked, What color are trees? To my mother's horror I answered, Pink. When pressed, What trees are pink? I immediately answered, Almond trees. They were pink flowering just at that time in several neighboring gardens, and mine and my mother's prestige was rescued. I think my enthusiasm for birdwatching was in part due to my capacity for making observations." One day grandmother Minna remarked to Otto, Ernst's elder brother: "Watch out well, little Ernsty will eventually pass you."
In an early notebook, Ernst recorded that the family went to the Munich Hoftheater to see Friedrich Schiller's "Wilhelm Tell" in 1914. During 1916-1917, Ernst took piano lessons and played several pieces for the family on Christmas Eve as he reported to Aunt Marguerite (one of his mother's sisters in Dresden) on 21 January 1917. He had recently attended a church concert and was reading G. Freytag's Soll und Haben. However, since he never practiced in spite of his mother's urging, the piano lessons were dropped. On 25 March 1917, the family attended Mozart's Magic Flute. Ernst noted the cast of this his first opera in detail and how the soprano voice of Maria Ivogün as the Queen of the Night had enchanted him.
After her husband's death from cancer in Munich on 1 July 1917, when Ernst was not yet 13 years old, Mrs. Mayr took her three sons to live in Dresden (Saxony), where she still had two brothers and four sisters. The Mayr boys finished the Staatsgymnasium ("Royal Gymnasium" until 1918) in Dresden-Neustadt and went to college on scholarships, some contributions from Aunt Gunny, and what little their mother could spare from her rather meager pension. Ernst always felt a tremendous admiration for his mother.
"She was an exemplary representative of the best Protestant ethics: generous, frugal, hardworking, full of ideals, and with a wonderful sense of humor. I think
she always thought that it was important that one 'did one's job.' If science was one's job, one had to devote oneself to science. If the cataloguing and classifying of the Rothschild Collection was one's job, this is what one did without complaining."
The three brothers represented rather different personalities. Otto (OM 3,19011985), 3 years older than Ernst, felt since the death of their father he had to give advice to his younger brothers, which was not received with gratitude. Ernst always wanted to excel over his older brother and worked very hard as a student, even finishing before him. After his early natural history interests, Otto turned to historical studies but became an engineer with several mining companies in northwestern Germany. He married and had four children (Otto [OM 4], Ulrike, Roswitha, Jörg) who are carrying on the Mayr tradition in Germany. However, Ernst and his younger brother Hans (1906-1954) were very close (Fig. 1.4):
"He was only a year and three-quarters younger than I and my inseparable companion. As far back as I can remember, Hans and I always did things together. We played together. We spent several vacations together in Lindau, and in the last years of my university studies in Berlin, we shared a room together. He studied law, following the footsteps of my father, and was particularly interested in criminal law. As a person, Hans was quite different from me. He was easy-going, but since he was very bright, studying was no problem for him. He was always in good humor, ready to make jokes, and to laugh at any adversity. At his bar exam (or the German equivalent), he ranked first among 133, and [later in 1936] was given the position of prosecuting attorney of eastern Saxony in the town of Bautzen. [At the outbreak of World War II in 1939] he was immediately drafted into the army. Somewhere at the Russian front, he developed the severe symptoms of multiple sclerosis, and was shipped home in a Red Cross train which, even though conspicuously marked, was heavily bombed. However, he made it home safely, but never left the hospital until he died in 1954. Even in his last years, he never complained, but somehow managed to find something good in every situation in which he found himself. He couldn't rave enough about his fortune to have been placed in such a wonderful hospital, etc."
After moving to Dresden in 1917, the family owned no longer the means to rent an apartment in a summer resort during school holidays but had to wait for invitations from relatives or friends. One or two summer vacations were spent at Uncle Karl Pusinelli's country place in "Switzerland of Saxony," the Elbsandstein Mountains, that marvelous area of sandstone cliffs not far southeast of Dresden, and their father's friend, Uncle Oscar Mey, invited them to Gargellen in Vorarlberg (Alps) where he owned the hotel "Madrisa" at an altitude of 1,500 m. The Mayr brothers were deeply impressed by the most beautiful landscape and alpine flowers. Aunt Gunny invited Ernst and Hans to visit her for a month in 1924 at her summer place in the Ammer Valley (Vorarlberg).
Was this article helpful?