The Harvard Years 19532005

In the fall of 1952, while in Seattle as a visiting professor at the University of Washington, "I received a telephone call one day from Alfred Romer, then director of the Museum of Comparative Zoology, when he asked me whether I was interested in being appointed an Alexander Agassiz Professor at Harvard University. To say that I would be interested would be the understatement of the week! I had long wanted to have a teaching position, but there were really only three institutions in the whole United States that would be suitable for my particular classification: Harvard, Michigan, and Berkeley. In early 1953, Romer passed through New York and we met at Grand Central Station where he told me the conditions under which I would be working at Harvard. I agreed with everything and I soon received the notice that I had been appointed."

Upon my enquiry, Ernst Mayr answered (5 January 1994):

"No, my shift from New York to Harvard was not a flight. I was in a way quite happy at the American Museum, but the position at Harvard was so infinitely better in every possible way that I could not have rejected it. To begin with, I wanted to live in a small town. The daily commuting from New Jersey to New York (one hour each way) was a great sacrifice which I made so that my children could be raised in a small country town. Also, I had no opportunity to have PhD students staying at the AMNH.1 Finally, the total intellectual environment was bound to be far more stimulating at Harvard than at the AMNH, and this certainly proved to be true.

Actually, there were no ill feelings whatsoever over my leaving, because everybody understood that this was an offer I could not possibly decline. The director, Dr. Parr, tried very hard to make me stay, and offered all possible incentives, but he simply couldn't match what Harvard offered. However, the AMNH insisted that I stay connected to the bird department as an honorary curator. Later on I was even elected a trustee of the AMNH and I served as such for two full terms. However, as I got older, traveling down to New York for these more or less social meetings of trustees was getting to be too much and I therefore finally resigned. The bird department still considers me to be part of them and requests that I annually send my list of publications which they include in their annual report as the publications of a member of their department. All this shows how warm our relations have remained."

1 Most of the zoology professors at Columbia University did not take evolution, systematics and natural history very seriously and would not permit Mayr to have PhD students. When word reached Columbia University about the Harvard offer, he received a telephone call giving him permission to have students, etc. as of that day, but then it was too late.

The move to Cambridge meant to Mayr, most of all, "exchanging New York for a pleasant and stimulating university town which perhaps has more of a European character than any other town in the United States. I will be able to walk to work, instead of standing for an hour in a crowded train or bus. I still plan to spend several months every year at the American Museum, although my official association will be with the Museum of Comparative Zoology" (to Erwin Stresemann, Berlin, on 25 March 1953). Mayr enjoyed "the contact with outstanding scholars in all fields, and I find the place scientifically stimulating. You realize, of course, that the existence (in the same area) of Harvard Med[ical] School, Massachusetts] Gen[eral] Hospital, M. I. T., and various branches of the Harvard Biology Department provide an almost endless opportunity for scientific stimulation" (to J. Lederberg, Madison, Wisconsin, on 28 February 1957).

Mayr took with him to Harvard University the large empirical database on geographical diversification of animal populations he had assembled during his work at the AMNH and began his career as evolutionary biologist and later historian and philosopher of biology. A revised edition of Systematics and the Origin of Species (1942e) had been under way since the late 1940s separating subject matter on the principles of "new systematics" from evolutionary aspects. The former were included in his textbook (with E.G., Linsley and R.L. Usinger) on Methods and Principles ofSystematic Zoology (1953a), whereas the latter formed the central theme of his synthesis on Animal Species and Evolution (1963b). Continued work on these topics led to the publication of thoroughly revised editions of these books in 1969 (PrinciplesofSystematicZoology, againrevised, withP. Ashlock as coauthor, in 1991) and in 1970 (Populations, Species, and Evolution), respectively. Although the subtitle of this latter work states that it is an "Abridgement" of Animal Species and Evolution, actually several chapters, particularly Chapter 10, were thoroughly revised, and certain phenomena such as gene flow and the role of chromosomes in speciation and evolution were dealt with in a novel fashion.

With his move to Harvard, Mayr did not lose contact with ornithology. He became editor as well as contributing author for more than half of the 16-volume Check-list of Birds of the World which was completed in 1987, a detailed catalogue of all species and subspecies of birds of the world (Bock 1990). No comparable list exists for any other group of animals. Mayr was President of the American Ornithologists' Union (1957-1959) as well as President of the XIIIth International Ornithological Congress (Ithaca, USA, 1962) and he summarized repeatedly the progress of ornithology and its relation to general biology (1963r, 1980d, 1983i, 1984a, 1988d, 1989c,k) emphasizing that throughout the history of biology, ornithology has played a leading role in making new discoveries and in developing new concepts.

Since Mayr's biological interests and national participation had greatly broadened, the percentage of straight ornithological publications decreased since 1953 and those on evolutionary biology greatly increased (Fig. 4.2). His activities now also comprised committees of the National Academy of Sciences, governing boards in the National Science Foundation, discussions on evolutionary biology (Fig. 7.1), biogeography, book reviewing, presidency of the 13th International Ornithological

Fig. 7.1. At Harvard University (left to right) Alfred Romer, Ernst Mayr and Julian Huxley, 14 November 1959 (Photograph courtesy of E. Mayr)

Congress (Ithaca 1962, Fig. 7.2), and the Commission of Zoological Nomenclature (1954-1976). As a member of the Biology Council (National Research Council, 1950s) he wrote a report on "Preserved materials and museum collections" to bring out the importance of museum collections and systematics generally, including a plea for better support. With the upsurge of molecular biology he was on continuous vigilance to prevent that all financial resources and new positions would be given to this new field. Again and again he emphasized the important contributions of systematics to the conceptual framework of biology such as population thinking, evolutionary biology, the basis of ecology and behavioral biology (besides its descriptive and service functions of taxonomy).

He wrote to Erwin Stresemann: "Did you see the Karl Jordan festschrift yet? I am working toward his election, despite his age, as an overseas member of the National Academy of Sciences (USA). Perhaps I'll succeed! I am anxious that systematics as such is honored" (11 March 1956; transl.) and "This again has been an exceedingly busy autumn, primarily because I have to serve on so many government committees as Mr. Systematicus. It is unfortunately true and realized by everybody that our field loses out whenever I am unable to represent it on high-level policy committees. I cannot do this forever but as we few in German [systematic] ornithology there is no one in this country who has quite the same authority on committees of the National Science Foundation or National Academy of Sciences as I do. Within the current 3-week period I have to be in Washington,

Fig. 7.2. Ernst Mayr as President of the International Ornithological Congress, Ithaca (USA), June 1962. Members of the Executive Committee of the I.O.C. Index: 1 A. H. Miller, 2 L. von Haartman, 3 E. Mayr, 4 D. Lack, 5 C. Sibley, 6 R. Falla, 7 D. Serventy, 8 R.-D. Etchecopar, 9 H. Lloyd, 10 E. Stresemann, 11 W. Thorpe, 12 S. Ali, 13 G.H. Lowery, 14 B. Biswas, 15 C. Lindahl, 16 F. Gudmundsson, 17 A. Schifferli, 18 Loke Van Tho, 19 D.S. Ripley, 20 P. Scott, 21 W. Meise, 22 R. Kuhk, 23 G. von Rokitansky, 24 J. Macdonald, 25 K. Voous, 26 J. Fisher, 27 R. Peterson, 28 G. Mountfort, 29 A. Wetmore, 30 G. Rudebeck, 31 R. Drost, 32 Sir Landsborough Thomson, 33 E. Schüz, 34 A. Rand, 35 J. Dorst, 36 Y. Yamashina, 37 G. Niethammer, 38 K. Bauer (Archives Museum of Natural History Berlin, Orn. 240, 1)

Fig. 7.2. Ernst Mayr as President of the International Ornithological Congress, Ithaca (USA), June 1962. Members of the Executive Committee of the I.O.C. Index: 1 A. H. Miller, 2 L. von Haartman, 3 E. Mayr, 4 D. Lack, 5 C. Sibley, 6 R. Falla, 7 D. Serventy, 8 R.-D. Etchecopar, 9 H. Lloyd, 10 E. Stresemann, 11 W. Thorpe, 12 S. Ali, 13 G.H. Lowery, 14 B. Biswas, 15 C. Lindahl, 16 F. Gudmundsson, 17 A. Schifferli, 18 Loke Van Tho, 19 D.S. Ripley, 20 P. Scott, 21 W. Meise, 22 R. Kuhk, 23 G. von Rokitansky, 24 J. Macdonald, 25 K. Voous, 26 J. Fisher, 27 R. Peterson, 28 G. Mountfort, 29 A. Wetmore, 30 G. Rudebeck, 31 R. Drost, 32 Sir Landsborough Thomson, 33 E. Schüz, 34 A. Rand, 35 J. Dorst, 36 Y. Yamashina, 37 G. Niethammer, 38 K. Bauer (Archives Museum of Natural History Berlin, Orn. 240, 1)

Philadelphia and New Haven for a total of 11 days and 6 different agencies or committees. What a life!" (9 November 1966; transl.).

His emphasis of systematics and organismic biology cannot be construed, as some authors have done, as an opposition to the rise of molecular biology as such. To the contrary, he was enthusiastic about it!

Although Mayr had been interested in the history of science since the time he wrote his dissertation, the activities before and during the Darwin centennial (1959) and his own participation in the celebrations stimulated and boosted his historical interests considerably. The number of titles on the history and philosophy of biology increased annually, especially after his "retirement" in 1975, and in 1982 (d), he published his masterly synthesis on The Growth of Biological Thought followed by Toward a New Philosophy of Biology (1988e), One Long Argument. Charles Darwin and the Genesis of Modern Evolutionary Thought (1991g), This is Biology. The Science of the Living World (1997b), What Evolution is (2001f), and What makes Biology Unique? Considerations on the Autonomy of a Scientific Discipline (2004a). Generally speaking, these publications deal mostly with the history and structure of biological theories and ideas, in particular with Darwin's theses of evolution, with Darwin's predecessors, his successors and opponents and with the development of the synthetic theory of evolution (1937-1950). In his philosophical writings he emphasized the autonomy of biology, in particular its independence from physics.

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