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If you like Ernst Mayr's story, you might also like:
Lee Berger,
Norman Borlaug,
Sylvia Earle,
Jane Goodall,
Stephen Jay Gould,
Donald C. Johanson,
Meave Leakey,
Richard Leakey,
Richard E. Schultes,
James D. Watson,
Tim White and
Edward O. Wilson

Related Links:
Ernst Mayr Library

Jared Diamond on Ernst Mayr

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Ernst Mayr
 
Ernst Mayr
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Ernst Mayr Interview (page: 6 / 7)

The Darwin of the 20th Century

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  Ernst Mayr

What scientific problems have you tried to solve in your career that have eluded you?

Ernst Mayr: I don't think I ever have tackled any scientific problems that ultimately I wasn't able to solve. I think I've always been realistic enough to tackle things that I could solve. There may be exceptions. I don't recall at this moment. I've been very much interested in animal behavior at certain times of my life, but I realized that this would require total attention, and I wasn't willing to give it, so I didn't follow up on it.

What advice would you give to younger scientists today who are just starting out about how to succeed in the profession?

James Watson Interview Photo
Ernst Mayr: The interests of a person plays a considerable role. For instance, people who are born naturalists should choose different professions than people who have a spectacular mathematical talent. I think it depends on a person's talent, what he should choose and what he should love. If you don't love what you're doing, you're not going to do a good job.

We understand you played some kind of a role in James Watson's career and his thinking about DNA. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Ernst Mayr: Well, this is almost like a joke, but when I was at the American Museum in New York, a lot of young people came and saw me. I was well-known as someone young people, particularly bird watchers, could talk to. It was well-known that I had a great deal of experience in anything having to do with birds.


One day Jim Watson's parents appeared in my office. They had some other thing to do in New York, no doubt, because they lived in Chicago. They knew I was an ornithologist and I think Jim knew about me and had already acquired a certain admiration for my work. So Ms. Watson asked me, "Jim wants to become an ornithologist. Where should he go for his studies of ornithology?" At that time, of course, everybody went to Cornell. And I said -- probably to their surprise -- I said, "He shouldn't study ornithology at all. He should, in his undergraduate career, get a very good basic training in biology. And when, after four years, he was still keen on ornithology, then I would be willing to suggest where you should go for graduate school in ornithology. Maybe other people said the same thing. I don't credit myself as being the only one who guided his future. Anyhow he did follow just that. He went to a good school -- I think it was the University of Chicago -- got an excellent training in biology, and of course in the course of that he encountered all sorts of interests, all sorts of problems that are far more interesting than bird watching, and so he never followed up his intention to become an ornithologist, but he became the discoverer of the double helix, all through my giving him good advice!

[ Key to Success ] Preparation


What kind of talents do you believe that you lack, that you might liked to have had?


Ernst Mayr: I never was very good at mathematics, and I take a book that is even considered not very difficult, let's say, like Fisher's Genetic Theory of Evolution, and I'm very soon stumped by the mathematical formulae he introduces. Another thing is, it turns out I'm not very good with my hands, so if I had gone into medicine I wouldn't have been a good surgeon. I would have been a very good diagnostician. I can sort of have an intuition for just hints of observational things like that. It depends a little bit on a subset, on what field you're in. I have assessed that I'm no good with my hands, no good mathematically, I have a superb memory. I'm very discriminating and I have one thing, I mentioned earlier, I share with Darwin, and that is an incredible curiosity and the ability to ask questions. And very broad interests. There's hardly any field that I'm not interested in. People in the faculty luncheons and things like that, I get next to a fellow from the business school and I can have a very good conversation with him on his field, because I'm interested in that, too. Or you name it, I'm interested in that field. So, broad interests. Of course, most of the great scientists have very broad interests, and those are feeding in from other fields into the special thing he's working on and helps to broaden his approach to his special field.


You were talking a little bit about your diagnostic skills, which really are dependent on the kind of mind that's good at synthesis of information. There's a story I heard you tell about how you diagnosed your own kidney problems to the amazement of the physician. Can you tell us that story?


Ernst Mayr: When I was about 30, I had suddenly developed bleeding from my... I had blood in my urine -- let's put it that way -- and no special pains or anything, but every three or four months I'd have another spell of bleeding. Finally, being very unsuccessful with ordinary doctors, I went up to the urogenital clinic at P and S: Physician and Surgeon Medical School of Columbia University in New York, up on Broadway and 168th Street. I went up to the floor "I", which said "Urogenital." I didn't know anybody. And the receptionist said, "Whom do you want to see?" And I said, "I want to see some specialist of urinary problems." And so she got an intern, a fellow by the name of Rathbone, who got me into his office, and he said, "Now, young man, what's your problem?" And I said, "I think I have a tumor in my left kidney." And he immediately laughed. He said, "Now young man, a tumor in a kidney is a thing very difficult to diagnose. Whatever got you to have that diagnosis?" And I said, "Well," I said, "The blood in my urine is rather black, and so I decided it wasn't something in the bladder but up in the kidney. And the second thing is I don't have any special pains, any really acute pains. So it isn't a kidney stone." And then I said "In my left kidney, I sometimes have a heavy feeling in my left side, so I decided it is in my left kidney. And then my father died of sarcoma of the kidney and so to guess that it might be a tumor was the obvious one for me, and that's how I came to my diagnosis." And he said, "Well," he said, "We have to make all the tests." And they cytoscoped me and they x-rayed me and they finally found something. By God, it looked like a little papilloma in the pelvis of the left kidney. And they said, "Well, we have to watch this. Come back in half a year and we'll take another x-ray, and if it has grown in the meantime then we'll have to operate on it." Well, it had grown and my left kidney was taken out. And when I was lying there about three or four days after the operation, the physician in charge of the floor came by with his students every day for the clinical analysis and when he came to my bed, he said, "Now, here we have a very unusual case. Here is a patient who came to us with a ready-made diagnosis, and for once he was right!"


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This page last revised on Apr 14, 2014 12:06 EDT