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Being made director of the Museum of Comparative Zoology


Country life
Ernst Mayr Scientist
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While we were in… still in Tenafly, New Jersey, so to speak, in New York, we always had the dream of having a country place somewhere. But to find an affordable place in the outskirts of New York you had to go out at least a hundred miles or more and then, even then it wouldn't be very ideal. But when we came to Cambridge, to find such a place would be quite… was quite feasible, but the problem was where, and there were two choices: either we could go to the Cape, Cape Cod, which is where, probably, the majority of the Harvard professors had a summer home; or we could go into the hill country toward northern New Hampshire or Vermont. Now, both my wife and I came from southern Germany which is hill country, we were not particularly accustomed to the sea shore, and so we opted for the hill country, particularly because we knew that the travelling to Cape Cod always meant getting into traffic jams, there was tremendous traffic there. And then very often on the Cape, in the summer, it suffered from a lot of fog and so forth, and the places that you could get were always quite small, while what we finally found in New Hampshire was several hundred acres of land, the shore of a private lake, we don't either own the lake but we have use of one third of the shore line, and many other advantages. So… also the place is… was only 59 miles from Cambridge and we often had students there and we had parties there, apple harvesting parties for all the staff of the biology department, and two of my PhD candidates did their PhD work in bird behavior on my place there in New Hampshire. And the place… we still own the place, my daughter has it now… one of my daughters has it now, and there is nothing changed in the neighborhood. The nearest neighbor in one direction is half a mile away; the nearest neighbor in the other direction is two miles away; it is a really largely wild undisturbed country, all of it was farming country. When we acquired the place we had the view of three mountains of the neighborhood. In those 38 years now the trees have grown up so much that we now cannot see any mountain from our house any more. But, it was here that I wrote most of my books. I had a study up there and was undisturbed by students or committees, and I would get up very early in the morning, usually about 04:30 or thereabouts and start working, and then, around 10 o'clock I knocked off and went outdoors and did all the things one has to do in a country place, and go through the woods. And I never used any trail or anything, just like in New Guinea where I also went just with a machete in a hand into the jungle. I have a good sense of direction and also knew how to record to myself what turns I had made, and so I really had… had a wonderful life in the woods of New Hampshire. And it is all woods there, only around the house are about 30 or 40 acres of open meadows.

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: Tenafly, New Jersey, New York, Cambridge, Massachusetts, Cape Cod, Harvard University, New Hampshire, Vermont, Germany, New Guinea

Duration: 3 minutes, 49 seconds

Date story recorded: October 1997

Date story went live: 24 January 2008