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Arriving in New York


Bringing the collections together
Ernst Mayr Scientist
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The big problem for the American Museum [of Natural History] was in 1932, 1933 - what... how to bring together the Whitney collection, the Rothschild collection, the old collections of the American Museum and put them into a new place. The old location of the bird department at the American Museum was totally insufficient. It was very crowded even before all these big collections arrived, so the... Doctor Sanford again persuaded one of his wealthy friends to give the money to build a new wing, and the new wing, originally before the Rothschild collection was acquired, was to have a great many floors for public exhibits. But when the Rothschild collection was purchased, immediately the plans had to be changed and the third and the fourth floor that originally were supposed to have exhibits were now changed over to locate the Rothschild collection. And the problem now came... there were these huge packing cases – I think there were 84 of them, in which these 280,000 birds were in – and they had to be now stored away in collection cases and in the right, proper order. And how is one to decide in what case should go the birds-of-paradise and how many collection cases this will need for the birds-of-paradise, and where should the birds-of-paradise be in the line of other families? Well, this task was given to me and I spent three or four months measuring the size of the specimens in the different families of birds, how many specimens there were in the Rothschild collection, how many specimens we already had in our collections. And then deciding that this family requires four collection cases, this family requires only one, this requires eight, and have them all on a map so that the complete collection fitted in to all the compete cases of... of these floors. And I was quite sure that I would make all sorts of mistakes and we would get empty cases and we would... big jam ups in other areas, but lo and behold, it all worked out beautifully except for one exception; and that was I had not taken into consideration the size of the Siberian eagle owls. Siberian eagle owls are monsters, they're great big things and... only a few of them go in one collection case and I had not allowed enough, and so we had to do a lot of adjusting this thing; but that was the only exception, otherwise everything got in properly. But, what I must emphasise, getting... transferring the collection on the old wing, and fitting in the Whitney collections and distributing the Rothschild collection, all that took an awful lot of my time. If people think that I devoted all my time all the time only to research, they're very much mistaken. These housekeeping activities in a museum collection which were mostly assigned to me, as it is usually the case that the youngest person in the department has to do all the dirty work – and that was I – it took a lot of my time. And then the collections had to be catalogued and I was in charge of the cataloguing and I had three cataloguers, but I had to prepare every family and the trays for the cataloguer so that he could catalogue them. And that took... took another 10 or 15 years, so there is a lot of administrative technical work in addition to research work in a museum.

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, 1932, 1933, Walter Rothschild, Leonard C Sandford

Duration: 3 minutes, 59 seconds

Date story recorded: October 1997

Date story went live: 24 January 2008