Ernst Mayr and the elevator

I've finished the 5th chapter of The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, but I don't have time to put up a review right now. But I do want to comment on a funny passage:

I ran into Ernst Mayr as I was completing this chapter and asked if he had ever met de Vries. "No," he said, "botanists and zoologists didn't talk to each other very much in those days, and anyway, I was a Lamarckian then."

Ernst Mayr lived from 1904 to 2005. Hugo de Vries didn't die until 1935. So a meeting is certainly plausible; and it reiterates just how long Mayr lived that it is plausible he knew one of the founders of modern Mendelianism. In 2003 a friend of mine was on an elevator at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard and she found herself standing next to an elderly gentleman. He turned to her and nodded and said something to the effect of "Good day." It was only later when she asked someone who that might be that they explained it was Ernst Mayr; when she told me who it was she'd run into my only response was "He's still alive!?!?!" She laughed and stated that that was her response too; some people talked about how he had known Alfred Russell Wallace. This wasn't true, but their lives did overlap (Wallace died in 1913).

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I have my own Mayr elevator story (actually, two of them) but I won't tell them because they are not as good as some others that are out there.

(A lot of people worked in the University Museums, and there were only a few elevators. I also have a Richard Wrangham elevator story and a Gordon Willey elevator story. And a few others)

In fact, now that I think about it, I don't want to tell any of these stories, or any of the ones I heard. All of them are either boring or something that would be impolite or impolitic to repeat...

Even more remarkable, of the three midwives of Mendelian genetics (DeVries, Correns, Tschermak), Tschermak lived until 1962. By that date the decoding of the genetic code was well under way. Sort of like the Wright brothers getting to watch a demonstration flight of an F-22.

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 11 Feb 2008 #permalink

I worked at the venerable MCZ, in the library, for about 8 years. Though I don't remember any elevator time with him, Prof. Mayr was a frequent visitor to the library. He was pleasant, had fierce eyebrows and no patience with poor effort. It didn't occur to me at the time that he was a link with people I thought of as dead a long, long time ago.