Mayr, Ernst, 1904-2005

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Exist Dates

1904 July 5 - 2005 February 3

Biographical or Historical Note

ERNST MAYR was born on July 5, 1904 in Kempten, Germany to Helene (née Pusinelli) and Otto Mayr.

Mayr was a world renowned evolutionary biologist, naturalist and ornithologist, often cited as “the Darwin of the 20th century.” Along with Theodosius Dobzhansky, J.S. Huxley and G.G. Simpson, Mayr was a leading architect of the modern evolutionary synthesis. Mayr worked on the Whitney South Sea expedition from 1929-1930 as a collector and field researcher. The AMNH Whitney South Sea Expedition was an ornithological expedition originated by Dr. Leonard C. Sanford and funded by Harry Payne Whitney, with the mission of systematically exploring Polynesia, Melanesia, and Micronesia for previously undiscovered or little-known bird specimens. It was the largest ornithological expedition ever conceived. Active field research was conducted from 1920 to 1941.

While on the expedition Mayr collected more than 3,000 bird specimens. Mayr cited his time in the South Pacific as deeply influential to his interest and pursuit of evolutionary study. Much of Mayr’s early career was focused on speciation, the phenomenon of the division of one species into several daughter species. After returning from WSSE, Mayr worked as a research associate at AMNH in 1931. From 1932 to 1944 Mayr was an associate curator in the AMNH ornithology department. Mayr was the curator of the Rothschild Collection of Birds from 1944 to 1953. Part of his duties were to manage the Whitney South Sea Expedition from New York. In 1942 Mayr published his landmark book on evolutionary biology, Systematics and the Origin of Species. He was a prolific writer, publishing over 650 papers and over 25 books. Two other major works of Mayr’s are Animal Species and Evolution (1963) and Populations, Species and Evolution (1970).

Mayr was a devoted bird watcher from a young age. While bird watching in the Mortizburg region of Saxony in 1923 he spotted a Red-crested Pochard, a duck that had not been seen in the region since the mid nineteenth-century. A member of the local ornithology club suggested Mayr report his findings to Erwin Stresemann, one of the leading ornithologists of the time, while on his way to medical school at the University Greifswald Berlin. Stresemann confirmed the sighting and, impressed with Mayr’s talent, suggested he volunteer for the ornithology wing of the university museum. Mayr soon changed his major and attended the University of Berlin. He graduated with a doctorate in ornithology in 1926.

From 1925-1932, Mayr was assistant curator at the University of Berlan zoological museum. In 1927 he led an ornithological expedition to New Guinea, funded by Baron Walter Rothschild. In 1928, Mayr led an expedition to Mandated Territory of New Guinea for the University of Berlin. Mayer joined the AMNH Whitney South Sea Expedition in 1929.

In 1953 Mayr left AMNH to become the Alexander Agassiz professor of zoology at Harvard. He held the position until 1975, when he retired. He also acted as director of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University from 1961-1970. Mayr was an AMNH trustee from 1970-1975.

Mayr co-founded the Society for the Study of Evolution in 1946. He founded the journal Evolution in 1947 and served as editor until 1949.

Mayr and his wife, Margarete Simon, married May 4, 1935. They had two daughters: Christa Menzel and Susanne Harrison. Ernst Mayr died on February 3, 2005 in Bedford, MA at the age of 100.


Leddy Medal, 1946. The Darwin-Wallace Medal, 1958. Brewster Medal Am. Ornithologists Union, 1965. Daniel Giraud Elliot Medal, 1967. National Medal of Science, 1970. Molina prize Accademia delle Scienze, Bologna Itay, 1972. Linnean Medal, 1977. Gregor Mendel medal, 1980. Balzan prize 1983. Darwin medal Royal Society 1987. Distinguished Scientist award UCLA 1993. Salvin Godman medal 1994. Japan prize 1994. Benjamin Franklin medal 1995, 1996. Lewis Thomas prize 1998. Crafoord prize 1999.


    Library of Congress Name Authority File no. 78097027
    Creshkoff, N. “Ernst Walter Mayr (1904- ).” Mayr, Ernst vertical file. AMNH Research Library.
    LeCroy, Mary. “Ernst Mayr At the American Museum of Natural History.” Ornithological Monographs, no. 58 (2006): 30-49.
    Marquis Who’s Who in America 2001, 55th ed. Vol. 2 L-Z, s.v. "Mayr, Ernst."
    Yoon, Carol Kaesuk. “Ernst Mayr, Pioneer in Tracing Geography’s Role in the Origin of Species, Dies at 100.” The New York Times (New York, NY), February 5, 2005.



Written by: Cara Shatzman
Last modified: 2016 November 3


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