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The Alexander Agassiz professorship


The phone call that changed my life
Ernst Mayr Scientist
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While I was a visiting professor at the University of Washington in Seattle I received a telephone call that changed my whole life. It was a call from Professor Alfred Romer, the Director of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard, who asked me whether I would be interested in an Alexander Agassiz professorship at Harvard University. Well, the answer was obvious. I had always wanted to do teaching and there is no more distinguished institution in the whole United States, and possibly the whole world, than Harvard University. And to get a call from there is something you couldn't possibly turn down. Well, Professor Romer and I met in the spring of ’53 at the railroad station in Boston to finish up our discussions and the conditions, and on 1st July 1953 I started my professorship at Harvard. Now the American Museum [of Natural History], obviously, wasn't very happy with my leaving and the director [Albert] Parr, I have to give him credit for that, tried everything he could to hold me there. He said anything that Harvard offers we'll… we'll up it, we… if they give you 16,000 a year, we'll give you 17,000 etc. Well, finally he said, now, what other condition would… would you want? And I said well, (I mentioned this already yesterday), ‘Take the museum out of New York, I'd like to be in a smaller university town’. Well anyhow, I went there but I kept… we met… we parted quite amiably and I was appointed an honorary curator of the bird department. And I'm still asked by the bird department every year to submit my annual report to be included in theirs. And in later years I was twice serving at the American Museum as a trustee, but it was a long trip always to go down there for the trustee meetings and I finally resigned.

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: University of Washington, Seattle, Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University, United States of America, 1953, Boston, 01-07-1953, American Museum of Natural History, New York, Alfred Romer, Albert E Parr

Duration: 2 minutes, 30 seconds

Date story recorded: October 1997

Date story went live: 24 January 2008