Ernst Mayr, one of the most productive biologists of the last century, passed away yesterday at the age of 100. The retired Harvard zoologist leaves behind a legacy of 700 research papers and more than two dozen books that have shaped biological thinking over the past 50 years.
An ornithologist turned evolutionary biologist turned historian of science, Mayr began his academic career at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, where he described 26 new species and 445 new subspecies of birds, many collected during expeditions to the South Pacific. His studies showed that new species do arise from isolated populations as Charles Darwin had thought. In 1942 he published a groundbreaking book, Systematics and the Origin of Species, that gave a 20th-century perspective on Darwin's ideas. Around the same time, Mayr helped to found the Society for the Study of Evolution and its journal Evolution as a forum for like-minded biologists.
At 49 Mayr moved to Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology (MCZ), where he worked to set up a field station and to expand the museum's research facilities. During his tenure there, he began to branch out, focusing on the history and philosophy of science. He retired from the Museum in 1975 and seven years later penned The Growth of Biological Thought, which covered the history, problems, and concepts of biology. Refusing to move into the computer age, Mayr wrote all his work by hand.
Among his 33 awards, the most notable accolades include three of biology's most treasured prizes: the Balzan Prize in 1983, the International Prize for Biology (the Japan Prize) in 1994, and the Crafoord Prize in 1999. He also received the National Medal of Science in 1970. Mayr was in the midst of a comprehensive reanalysis of Darwin' ideas when he died February 3 at a retirement community in Bedford, Massachusetts.
Mayr's ideas about speciation are somewhat controversial, but his genius was indisputable, says Harvard's James Hanken. "He had vast insights into natural history and evolutionary biology, especially of birds." In addition, "he was a tremendous champion of natural history museums."