The late German-American biologist Ernst Mayr (1904-2005) was a leading light in the field of evolutionary biology, gaining a PhD at the age of 21. He was also a tropical explorer and ornithologist who undertook an expedition to New Guinea and collected several thousand bird skins. In 1931 he accepted a curatorial position at the American Museum of Natural History. During his time at the museum, aged 37, he published his seminal work 'Systematics and Origin of the Species' which integrated the theories of Darwin and Mendel and is considered one of his greatest works.
I was born in a little town in southern Bavaria, the town of Kempten, on the 5th of July 1904. This means that I'm now more than 93 years old. My father was a judge, and it was customary at that time in Germany he was shifted to another location every six to eight years, so that we moved from Kempten to Würzburg where I began my natural history studies, and then to Munich. And then when my father died at an age when I was only 13 years old, my mother moved us to Dresden where she came from – which is in Saxony in central Germany – and I stayed there until I had to go... until I went to the university. Now, my family is remarkably well described in a book by a sociologist as the 'German mandarins'. And he points out that there was a social stratum in Germany in which everybody had to go to the Humanistisches Gymnasium, and so did I and so had my father and my grandfather, and I had nine years of Latin and seven years of Greek and a great deal of history and other subjects like that. It was a very thorough education and people in that social stratum of the 'mandarins' either went into the civil service, or they became university teachers. Well, in my case, the family was mostly... had a long medical background. My father was a judge, but his younger brother was a doctor, his father was a doctor, his grandfather was a doctor, his great-grandfather was a doctor. And so it was taken for granted in the family that I would become a doctor, even though I was the second son, and I was perfectly happy with that decision. I was interested in medicine and, owing to the early death of my father, I was interested in diagnosis because I felt maybe he could have been saved if his illness had been diagnosed much more recently, much more quickly. And so I was all prepared to take on the medical curriculum.
Walter J. Bock is Professor of Evolutionary Biology at Columbia University. He received his B.Sc. from Cornell and his M.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard. His research lies in the areas of organismal and evolutionary biology, with a special emphasis on functional and evolutionary morphology of the skeleto-muscular system, specifically the feeding apparatus of birds.
Bavaria, Germany, Kempten, 05-07-1904, Würzburg, Munich, Dresden, Saxony, Germany, Humanistiche Gymnasium, Otto Mayr, Helena Mayr