Early Life and Education:
Born July 5, 1904 - Died February 3, 2005
Ernst Walter Mayr was the second born son of Helene Pussinelli and Otto Mayr in Kemptem, Bavaria. His father was a judge, but often encouraged his sons to appreciate nature. Ernst took a particular liking to birds and learned all about the wildlife in the area from his older brother Otto and his father.
Ernst's father passed away just before Ernst's thirteenth birthday in the midst of World War I. His mother moved him and his brothers to Dresden, Germany where he completed his high school years at the Royal Gymnasium. He began to study medicine at the University of Greifswald, but eventually pursued his passion of zoology and finished his PhD in ornithology at the University of Berlin by the age of 21.
Mayr began his career at the Museum of Berlin shortly after graduation in 1926. The following year, he was asked to travel to New Guinea on behalf of the American Museum of Natural History. While there, he discovered and named several species of birds and orchids. In 1931, Mayr accepted a full time position in New York at the American Museum of Natural History.
In 1935, Ernst Mayr married Margarete Simon. Since World War II was beginning to erupt, travel to remote areas for research was difficult and Mayr instead turned his focus to evolutionary studies at the museum.
In 1953, Mayr accepted an appointment as a professor of zoology at Harvard University, where he spent the rest of his distinguished career. Ernst and Margarete were married for 55 years before her death in 1990. Ernst Mayr passed away at age 100 in Massachusetts.
Ernst Mayr became a well known and extremely respected evolutionary biologist as he studied and worked at the American Museum of Natural History. Mayr set his sights on linking Charles Darwin's ideas of evolution with Gregor Mendel's work in genetics and the field of phylogenetics. This work came to be known as the Modern Synthesis of Evolutionary Theory.
In 1942, Mayr published his most famous book, Systematics and the Origin of Species. In it, he was the first one to define species as a group of individuals who are able to interbreed. The book also introduced the concept of allopatric speciation. This seemed to alleviate the issue of how species became new species that Darwin never could understand. By using newer ideas in genetics and systematics, Mayr was able to propose a mechanism for how speciation occurred.
Mayr's later published books and articles often found him arguing with molecular geneticists and mathematical geneticists. He felt these types of geneticists did not put enough emphasis on the role the environment played in the evolution of species. Instead, they seemed to focus on the microscopic single genes only instead of his proposed ideas that the entire genome should be considered when studying speciation.