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Acquiring Lord Rothschild's collection


Working at the American museum
Ernst Mayr Scientist
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I took a collection from an island called Rennell Island which had never been collected before and I knew from [Hannibal] Hamlin, who had been there collecting, that it had all sorts of exciting things. And I worked on that collection and I described several new species and it was a most exciting island because it got... had gotten its fauna partly from the Solomons, and partly from... politically it belonged to the Solomons, but it was way off a little coral atoll, and the other part it had gotten from the south, from the New Hebrides. Well, by the time I finished that collection, [Frank M] Chapman had returned from Panama and I went to him and I said, 'Doctor Chapman, here I am. Now, what do you want me to work on?' And he looked at me with a sort of a puzzled look and he said, 'Why should I tell you? We hired you as a specialist on the birds of this region. You ought to know what to work on'. Well, he was the boss, and having had the German background where the boss always told everybody below him what to do and what not to do, I was astonished and delighted with this freedom of the American Museum [of Natural History], and that was typical for everything I did at the American Museum. It was a place where... where really everybody was tolerant of everybody else and a great deal of freedom and a great deal of pleasant interchange among us colleagues. The one person from whom I learnt the most was undoubtedly [James P] Chapin, the one that had a doctor's degree from Columbia University, because he was the only one who understood modern genetics and who was a confirmed Darwinian. And I at that time still had a good many Lamarckian inclinations and Chapin was the one who talked me out of them. And so by about 1933 I too was a confirmed Darwinian, and I have been ever since. Well, there I worked very hard on all these collections and at the end of the year I think I had published seven or eight papers, which was for them quite a record. And there were still huge unworked collections and at the beginning of the year 1932 the American Museum decided they would give... they would gather... they would be able to raise the money to hire me for a second year.

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: Rennell Island, Solomons, New Hebrides, Panama, American Museum of Natural History, Columbia University, 1933, 1932, James P Chapin, Frank M Chapman, Hannibal Hamlin, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck

Duration: 2 minutes, 43 seconds

Date story recorded: October 1997

Date story went live: 24 January 2008