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Writing Animal Species and Evolution


Appointing a curator of invertebrates
Ernst Mayr Scientist
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There were two appointments of mine that didn't work out. One was a curator of invertebrates with the name of Barry Fell. He… invertebrates used to be under Alexander Agassiz, one of the best areas… one of the most outstanding areas of the Museum of Comparative Zoology. But it had greatly deteriorated in… in the… in subsequent times and I said we must build this up again, and I inquired all over the world who are the best invertebrate people. And, finally, the choice narrowed down to two. One was somebody at the British Museum of Natural History [sic], I think his name was Rees, R-E-E-S; and the other one was Barraclough Fell in New Zealand who worked on echinoderms and echinoderms had been the special field of Alexander Agassiz. We had probably the best collection of echinoderms in the world, and Rees also indicated he wasn't going to leave Britain. So I had good friends in New Zealand, particularly the President of the Royal Society of… of New Zealand – Fleming – and I said, ‘What do you know about this man Fell?' And he wrote back… a very praising report, very favorable report. So we hired Fell, and Fell undoubtedly was a very intelligent person, but he went crazy… there's just no other way of putting it. First, he started to write papers on dispersal around the Antarctic continent that were really quite queer, and I worried about him and I said, ‘Well you… you don't mix with anybody, you always sit just in your office. Why don't you mix more?’ And I invited him to lunch with me in the director's office. Well, it didn't do any good and he very soon after that began to develop a new interest in old inscriptions, particular inscriptions that had never been deciphered by anybody, maybe unknown languages or what… including, let's say, on Easter Island or… and then he… he thought… and he founded a society which, I guess, is the Epigraphic Society, that's the name of it, and he published a journal where all these… he had quite a following, but I had a feeling it was all pure invention, and I didn't know what to do about it, to… to pension him was a little difficult. But I think it was finally solved after I had retired and he was pensioned and he went to the West Coast, and he has a great following, this Epigraphic Society of his is very successful and they publish monographs and all that, but as a worker in the field of invertebrates he had been a total loss. The other appointment, and the person is still there and so I will not say very much, but it was a young man who again was highly favored by everybody. I had letters in the files from Sweden and Holland saying you don't have to look for somebody in the rest of the world, you've the best young man right there in… in Harvard. So I appointed him. He does give a reasonably good course, I'm told, but he's been very disappointing to me because he doesn't publish very much and has too many outside interests. He will dabble in Portuguese poetry and things like that. And… so in my appointments I definitely have not been lucky.

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.

Listeners: Walter J. Bock

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.

Tags: Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University, Natural History Museum, New Zealand, Great Britain, Royal Society of New Zealand, Easter Island, Epigraphic Society, Sweden, Holland, Antarctica, Alexander Agassiz, Barry Fell

Duration: 4 minutes, 30 seconds

Date story recorded: October 1997

Date story went live: 24 January 2008