Mayr: Going Strong At 90

Science Profile

Ernst Mayr, Agassiz professor of zoology, emeritus, is affectionately known as Darwin's modern day bulldog. And at 90 years of age, this bulldog has no intentions of slowing down.

Stephen Jay Gould, Mayr's successor to the Agassiz professorship, wrote in the February issue of the science journal Evolution that 1904 was significant for being the year the ice cream cone was invented and the first Olympic games were held in America.

But for biology, writes Gould, the "cardinal event" was the birth of Ernst Mayr.

In fact, the entire issue of Evolution was devoted to celebrating Mayr's 90th birthday. Mayr served as the magazine's first editor in 1947.

Mayr, an evolutionary biologist, flew to Japan last month to accept the latest of his more than 25 awards--the 1994 International Prize for Biology.

Mayr won the prize for his work in systematics, which attempts to define the evolutionary relationships between organisms.

"He's got every kind of prize in the world," says John R. Pappenheimer '36, Higginson professor of physiology.

The prize, which is awarded by the emperor and empress of Japan, is regarded as one of the top prizes in biology. The medal is accompanied by a monetary award of 10 million yen, or about $100,000.

Mayr is the second Harvard professor to win the award. Baird Professor of Science Edward O. Wilson won it in 1993.

"There is no Nobel prize in biology, so this is the best," says Walter J. Bock, professor of evolutionary biology at Columbia University. Bock, a former student of Mayr's, served on the 17-member committee that selected Mayr for the prize.

"Clearly, he is one of the outstanding evolutionary biologists," says Bock. "He laid down the foundation of modern synthesis [thinking]."

Mayr almost declined to answer when asked why he thought he was selected for the award this year.

"If I tell you why I was chosen, you'll say 'What a conceited ass he is,'" Mayr says. "The fact is that I was the best of the nominees."

And Mayr can say that without grinning. In fact, he is widely regarded as one of the best in his field.

According to the Committee for the International Prize for Biology, Mayr has described 26 currently recognized species of birds, more than any other living ornithologist,

"My personal opinion is that Ernst Mayr is the greatest of the living evolutionary biologists," says John T. Edsall '23, professor of biochemistry, emeritus. "He influenced my outlook [on biology] and enlarged it."

In an interview last week, Mayr said he will recovering from jet lag from his 10-day trip to Japan.

"I woke up at 2 a.m. this morning, and I couldn't get back to sleep," Mayr says. "After a glass of warm milk didn't put me to sleep, I decided I might as well get up and start working."

Indeed, this incessant drive to work has kept Mayr energized for the past 75 years.

The Career

Mayr did not begin his academic career studying biology. As an undergraduate in Germany in the 1920s, he originally planned to follow family tradition and become a doctor.

But Mayr dropped his medical education midway and switched to studying biology when he decided to embark on scientific expeditions. After earning a Ph.D. in zoology, he studied birds in New Guinea for two years.

"Lord Rothschild wanted three mountain ranges explored, so I was sent out at 23 to collect the bird fauna," Mayr says. "I sent back over 3000 bird skins."

Even though he remembers the expeditions fondly, Mayr says he was anxious to get back.

"Expedition life is not as glorious as it is thought to be," Mayr says. "It is strenuous and dangerous, with malaria and dysentery. I wanted to go home and get published."

Mayr's first paper appeared in 1923, and he's published at an astonishing rate since then, averaging about nine a year.

At an interview last week, Mayr thumbed through a blue pamphlet of 30 to 40 pages listing the 654 papers he has published over his lifetime, mostly about birds and evolution.

He still remains as prolific as ever--this year alone, Mayr has already published 12 papers. And Mayr was quick to point out, "there are more in press."

Mayr attributes his love of birds to his childhood years and family.

"I have been a bird-watcher since I was this big," Mayr says, motioning to the height of a young boy. "I was brought up in a good German family, and every Sunday, we went into nature. My mother knew every mushroom in the forest, and my father knew the flowers and the birds."

Mayr began his academic career at the University of Berlin as assistant curator of the university's zoological museum.

He then moved to the American Museum of Natural History in New York as a bird specialist, where he worked for two years to attain the permanent position of assistant curator.

Mayr says one of his responsibilities was organizing Lord Rothschild's collection of 280,000 bird skins, which he calls "the best collection ever."

"The skins came in 120 big cases, and it was my job to organize them in three floors of the Museum," Mayr says. "I only made one big goof where I didn't leave enough room in the owls. The eagle owls were much bigger than I thought they would be."

Mayr's early work peaked with the publication of his 1942 book Systematics and the Origin of the Species, a cornerstone of modern evolutionary theory and the new systematics.

After 22 years at the American Museum, Mayr came to Harvard as the Agassiz professor of zoology in 1953, where he taught courses on science and social issues with Edsall.

Mayr served as director of Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology (MCZ) from 1961 to 1970. In 1975, he was given emeritus status.

"I have spent the last 25 years working on the history of ideas in biology and the philosophy of biology," Mayr says.

Earlier this year, the MCZ dedicated a library to him recognizing his achievements.

Edsall says Mayr was instrumental in incorporating natural selection into contemporary evolutionary theory during the 1930s.

"Darwin did not persuade a great many other biologists on natural selection like he did on evolution," Edsall says. "It really was not until evolutionary synthesis of the 1930's that natural selection was built in."

Mayr remains a strong proponent of Darwin's theories.

"I have come to a conclusion," Mayr says, "Darwin was so incredibly right in almost everything he said. That is amazing."

The Prize

Mayr remarks that International Prize in Biology was created in part because the Nobel prize only awards experimental, rather than theoretical, work.

"You know, Darwin could not have won the Nobel prize," he says. "He only worked on concepts. Only about 20 percent of scientists are eligible [for the Nobel]." Mayr jokes that the other 80 percent of scientists gripe about that fact.

The Prize was created in 1985 to commemorate the 60-year reign of Emperor Showa and his longtime research interests in biology.

Each year, the Committee that administers the award chooses a scientist from a different field of biology to receive the prize.

"This year, they chose systematic biology," says Bock. "Systematic goes back of the beginnings of biology."

According to the Committee for the International Prize for Biology, "the special quality of Mayr as a researcher lies in the fact that he started as a naturalist and has continued, to his present age of 90, to be an observing and thinking naturalist."

A Busy Man

Embarking on the 10th decade of life, Mayr has no intention of stopping his work. Just last week, Mayr says, he gave three lectures in Japan. And he remains prolific, with over 15 books to his credit.

"Every time I write a book, I come up with ideas for two or three more that should be written," Mayr says. "Right now, I am writing a book on evolution so the common man can understand it."

Mayr cites two reasons for his longevity.

"First, it's luck," Mayr says. "I have lost both of my parents and my wife to cancer. I am lucky that my body's immune system fights off the malignant cells as they come along."

"Secondly, if I keep being active, it constantly rejuvenates me," Mayr says. "It is good for your brain to keep active and it is likewise good for your body."

But revealing his real key to success, Mayr recounted the work of Ann Lowell, a woman who investigated the common traits of great scientists.

"She found that scientists have a variety of IQs, eat different things, sleep at different times, and are truly different," Mayr says. "But she found one thing that all scientists have in common: they work like hell."

Rain Forests and Population

Mayr says more biologists should be in the tropics collecting information about the species there.

"There is an extermination of species going on [in the rain forest], and they are being irretrievably destroyed."

Mayr says many people are complaining about the destruction of the rain forests, but few are doing anything about it.

"Everyone talks about biodiversity, but I haven't seen any new jobs," Mayr says.

Mayr cites the population explosion as fueling the demise of the rain forests.

"When you have someone like the Pope saying 'have more children,' you have a population explosion," Mayr says. "In the West, we don't even replace ourselves with children."

Mayr feels strongly that the population must examine their ethics closely, and that "everyone should try to contribute instead of just taking."

"I believe in community ethics while the Pope preaches individual ethics," Mayr says. "If a fetus can be diagnosed as having Down's syndrome, community ethics dictate that the baby should be aborted, but individual ethics say that the mother will want to keep the baby."

"Individual ethics cause many of society's burdens," Mayr says. "But there is a danger where community ethics leads to totalitarian states. There must be a balance."

Mayr believes "difficult issues" like these are the ones that tomorrow's leaders must consider.

And if his parting words are any indication, Mayr plans to be right there when they do so.

"Come back and congratulate me on my 100th birthday," he says