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Invitation to become visiting professor at the University of Minnesota


Development of the Sanford Hall of Birds
Ernst Mayr Scientist
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The [American] Museum [of Natural History], of course, had to raise… to… to get the recognition, get the money from the city and all that… had to have exhibition halls. There was one exhibition hall, the hall of South Sea island birds and that… [Robert] Murphy more or less was in charge. But most of the exhibits actually devoted… were devoted to land birds and so I had to really run them so I was as much the… person who had done that hall as… as was Murphy. But then later on, the museum decided to have a hall on the biology of birds, to be dedicated to Doctor Sanford. And I was placed in charge. That was one of the most thankless jobs that I ever had in my life, because nobody cooperated and I had much too small a budget and I had much too tight a schedule. And everything always went wrong, and less and less money was available and less and less time was available. And finally by hook and crook, on the 25th May, or whatever the date was, of 1948, I opened the hall. And it… it had a lot of very interesting things because I had all sorts of ideas how to demonstrate how birds fly. I had some good model-makers, they… they were working with me, but my colleagues were hopeless. I had a very amusing exhibit. I mounted a skeleton of a hummingbird – very small thing – on the thigh bone of the Madagascar elephant bird, there was this huge big thigh bone of the Madagascar elephant bird and mounted on it a… was the skeleton of a little hummingbird to… showing the range of size within the birds. And there were many other aspects in that biology birds illustrated in this hall, but in a week after that I had – and most people don't know that and don't realise it – I had really what… what was a nervous breakdown and I had trouble with my heart, both tachycardia and arrhythmia. I felt weak and it took several years before I felt reasonably normal again, and I still have difficulties with my heart occasionally, but they all date back to that breakdown. It was the release after this intense stress and so forth, and finally the thing was opened up and I must have let myself go and, and had this… this breakdown. So I always think back with… with, sort of, horror to the time that I was struggling with that hall.

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, Madagascar, 25-05-1948, Sanford Hall of North American Birds, Robert Cushman Murphy, Leonard C Sanford

Duration: 3 minutes, 8 seconds

Date story recorded: October 1997

Date story went live: 24 January 2008