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Drinking whiskey with plantation managers


Joining the Whitney expedition
Ernst Mayr Scientist
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One morning as I was sitting there, skinning, or... it was a late morning, suddenly a black runner came into my... my little hut with a telegram, and the telegram said that – it came from [Erwin] Stresemann – he said that the American Whitney South Sea expedition which had a schooner operating in this area, their leader had become ill – again an accident in my favour – and they desperately needed a... an ornithologist because they had only some Yale [University] college boys on board, but they knew nothing about birds. 'Please', and Stresemann said, 'I know you're... you're ready to come home, but this may be very important for your... for your future, and furthermore the American Museum [of Natural History] has promised to give me some specimens from this area if you join that expedition'. So whether I liked it or not I had to say yes, and I made my way down to the coast and finally took a steamer to a port called Samarai. And this was, I believe... I would think this must have been around the end of June 1929, or early July. And at Samarai the boat of the Whitney South Sea expedition – the name of the boat was "France", it came originally from French Polynesia – met me and the leader, Hannibal Hamlin, even though he was only a... a Yale senior, was a very capable fellow. Later on he came back to the States, took a medical degree and became a well known brain surgeon who operated at Mass[achusetts] General Hospital and his major practice in Rhode Island and he was a very close friend of mine for the rest of his life, but he died some years ago. Well, Hamlin, who really didn't know much about birds, had just collected in parts of New Guinea and he was totally amazed that I came in there and I could give the name of every species and say whether it was rare or not and so forth. Well, anyhow, this was the beginning of the next... the next nine months I was on this schooner collecting birds in the Solomon Islands. Well, the schooner... everybody thinks what a wonderful thing being on schooner cruising around in the South Islands, well, this was an... an old copra carrying freight schooner, most uncomfortable. It had no actually working toilet facility. Under deck if you tried to sleep in the bunks it was always much too hot, you couldn't fall asleep so you slept on top of the deck, and, of course, every night a rain shower came sooner or later and drenched you. There was an old canvass over this area, but the canvass was rotten and let the water come through. The food was terrible. We had rice and canned Alaska salmon, that was our normal daily diet. However, looking back after all these years... and then I got Dengue fever which made me very sick, and so on and so forth. It was not a glorious expedition in any sense of the word as most people think who are used to these millionaires cruises that go to the South Sea islands. Well, anyhow, however, ornithologically it was very successful. We collected first on Choiseul Island, or Chóy-sel as it is called out there. Then we collected on San Cristobal where we made some very interesting discoveries because nobody had ever been in the mountains of San Cristobal. And finally went to Malaita where nobody had ever collected because the natives there were so hostile they had killed the District Officer and all of his 12 police attachment three years earlier and most reluctantly the resident in the capital of the Solomon Islands – this was under British control at that time – gave us the permission to go in there. And I still remember, and that's the honest truth, as we were leaving his office, he said, 'Well, I give you a fifty-fifty chance to come out alive'. That was Malaita at that time, and... and you can check in the books and will find that that was the... that's why nobody had ever collected there. Well, we made the first collection.

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: American Museum of Natural History, Samarai, 06-1929, 07-1929, Polynesia, France, Massachusetts General Hospital, Rhode Island, New Guinea, Solomon Islands, South Islands, Choiseul Island, San Cristobal, Malaita, Erwin Stresemann, Hannibal Hamlin

Duration: 4 minutes, 59 seconds

Date story recorded: October 1997

Date story went live: 24 January 2008