Royal Society Publishing

Ernst Walter Mayr. 5 July 1904 — 3 February 2005

Walter J. Bock

Elected ForMemRS 1988


Ernst Walter Mayr was a person of the twentieth century, having missed only a few years at the beginning of that century and lived into a few years of the twenty–first. He was a naturalist all of his life which established the foundation for his career as an evolutionary biologist. Often called the ‘Darwin of the twentieth century’, Ernst Mayr was clearly one of the best–known evolutionary biologists of his time, being one of the major architects of the modern evolutionary synthesis of 1937–48 and serving as the major founder of the Society for the Study of Evolution and of its journal Evolution. Although he was born and educated in Germany, Ernst was an American scientist, having worked at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) and the Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University, for 74 of his 100 years. Almost all of his publications were in the area of evolutionary biology; he published very few papers in functional biology. The most technical tool that he used was a Dictaphone. Ernst was truly a non–technical person and complained in his later years about libraries putting their catalogues in an electronic form because he did not know how to type – he did not even know the location of the keys on the keyboard – which delayed him greatly finding books he did not know. Computers were out of the question. He was outgoing, sought out interesting people whether they were important or not, talked to them, listened to what they said, read intensively, and thought deeply about what he took in. He had an amazing memory, but more importantly he could readily put the bits of knowledge together into new and significant ideas. He was a real teacher and simply could not allow someone to someone to leave with wrong ideas. Ernst had strongly held ideas and was firm in them; hence many people considered him to be overly dogmatic. He was interested in what was correct and not necessarily who was correct. He would argue strongly for his ideas, but he would change his position readily if he was convinced of the opposing stance. One had to be certain of one's facts and logic in any discussion with Ernst, which prevented many students and co–workers from discussing controversial ideas with him, something that made him sad. I can recall clearly his statement that ‘My bark is worse than my bite.’