RESONANCE ⎜ July 2005
Ernst Walter Mayr – The Grand Vizier of
Evolutionary Biology (1904-2005)
On 23 March 1923, a young medical student at the University of Greifswald, Germany,
spotted a pair of ducks while cycling down to the countryside of Moritzburg. He was
an ardent birdwatcher, but had never seen these birds before. He cycled over to
Dresden but couldn’t find anyone who could confirm his sightings. On consulting
books he discovered that the ducks he had seen were a pair of Red-crested Pochards
(diving ducks), a species that had not been sighted by anyone in nearly eighty years.
This incident was about to change the life of the nineteen-year-old, Ernst Walter
Mayr was born on 5th July 1904 in Kempton to Otto and Helene Mayr. Otto Mayr was
a judge and an amateur naturalist. Otto and Helene subscribed to a popular journal of
natural history to get their three teenage sons to take an interest in the subject. The
boys were taken on Sunday natural history walks by their father, and by the age of ten
Mayr could recognize all the local bird species by sight as well as by call. After
graduating from the Dresden secondary school, Mayr enrolled for a career in medicine
at the University of Greifswald, a place he chose for its rich ornithological diversity.
However, fate had something else in store for him.
Coming back to the story of the pochards, Mayr’s bird-watching friends did not
believe what he claimed to have seen. Obviously upset by this, he poured out his heart
to a stranger at a party soon after. This turned out to be a streak of luck, because this
person happened to know the greatest ornithologist in Berlin, Prof. Erwin Stresemann.
Armed with a letter of introduction from his new friend, Mayr traveled to Berlin, but
met with a rough reception from Stresemann, “who quizzed him mercilessly on his
knowledge of natural history and demanded to see his earlier notes and journals of
field observations.” At last convinced by Mayr’s observational skills, Stresemann
asked him to report the