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Lewis Thomas Prize Honors Ernst Mayr

Award from The Rockefeller University recognizes scientists as poets

Evolutionary biologist and author Ernst Mayr, Ph.D., is the recipient of the 1998 Lewis Thomas Prize: Honoring the Scientist as Poet. The prize, which honors scientists for their literary achievements, is awarded by The Rockefeller University.

“The Lewis Thomas Prize recognizes the scientist whose voice and vision can tell us of science’s esthetic and philosophical dimensions, who gives us not merely new information but cause for reflection, even revelation, as in a poem or painting,” explains Nobel laureate Torsten N. Wiesel, M.D., president of the university.

Mayr received the Lewis Thomas Prize during ceremonies at The Rockefeller University on Wednesday, April 8. In an accompanying lecture, “How Does an Evolutionist Find Theories and Explanations without Experimentation?,” Mayr discussed the various narratives that evolutionary biologists construct to tease out answers to questions that are seemingly unknowable and reflected on his distinguished career.

Mayr, the Alexander Agassiz Professor Emeritus of Zoology at Harvard University, is one of the co-founders of the “modern synthesis” in evolutionary biology, which integrates the theories of Darwin and Mendel.

In 1942, Mayr published his first book, Systematics and the Origin of the Species, a seminal tome that has been recognized as a groundbreaking contribution to the field of modern evolutionary synthesis. His other books include The Growth of Biological Thought, his monumantal history of biology; One Long Argument: Charles Darwin and the Genesis of Modern Evolutionary Thought, which garnered the 1992 Phi Beta Kappa Award for best science book; and most recently This is Biology: The Science of the Living World.

Mayr is the sixth person to receive the Lewis Thomas Prize, established in 1993. The late Lewis Thomas, M.D., an award-winning author and scientist who served in many positions including dean of the New York University School of Medicine and president and chancellor of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, received the prize in 1993. In 1994, The Rockefeller University presented the prize to Nobel laureate, molecular geneticist and author François Jacob, M.D., Ph.D. In 1995, Abraham Pais, Ph.D., Detlev W. Bronk Professor Emeritus at Rockefeller and an eminent physicist and science writer, received the prize. The 1996 winner was mathematical physicist and author Freeman Dyson, professor emeritus of physics at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. Max Perutz, Ph.D., Nobel Prize winner and molecular biologist, received the award in 1997.

“A primary author of the modern evolutionary synthesis, Ernst Mayr has long been regarded as the world’s greatest living evolutionary biologist,” says Wiesel. “With the writing of his monumental history, The Growth of Biological Thought, and in subsequent works directed at the scholar and general reader alike, Dr. Mayr has proved himself an epic chronicler of the evolution of human understanding of the living world and an original and forceful philosophical proponent of the unique intellectual character of the life sciences.”

Born in Kempten, Germany, in 1904, Mayr took an early and keen interest in birds and by age 10 could recognize all of the local species by call as well as sight. In 1923, he enrolled as a medical student in the University of Greifswald, a school he reportedly chose because of its ornithologically rich surroundings.

While a first-year medical student, Mayr published his first scientific paper in Ornithologische Monatsberichte. After passing his candidate of medicine examinations and completing preclinical studies in 1925, he switched to an ornithological Ph.D. program under the tutelage of Erwin Stresemann, curator of birds at the Berlin Natural History Museum. Mayr completed the entire doctoral program in just 18 months, then accepted a position as assistant in the bird department of the Berlin Museum.

Beginning in 1928, Mayr led ornithological expeditions to Dutch New Guinea and German Mandated New Guinea, collecting more than 3,000 bird skins in three years. He was subsequently invited to serve as a visiting curator in the Department of Ornithology at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) and, in his first year, completed no less than a dozen research papers, describing 12 new species and 68 new subspecies of birds.

In 1932 Mayr was appointed curator of AMNH’s then new Whitney-Rothschild ornithology collection and, during his subsequent 20 years there, described a record-breaking 26 new bird species and 410 subspecies.

Mayr left AMNH in 1953 to become Alexander Agassiz Professor at Harvard University’s Museum of Comparative Zoology. That same year, he published Methods and Principles of Systematic Zoology, which represented the culmination of his work in systematics. Thenceforth, Mayr’s focus moved from avian systematics to evolutionary biology.

In 1961, Mayr was appointed director of the Museum of Comparative Zoology, and in 1994, Harvard renamed that museum’s library in his honor. In additon to the Lewis Thomas Prize, Mayr has received numerous awards, including the National Medal of Science, the Balzan Prize and the Japan Prize.