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July 5, 1904|
Kempten, German Empire
February 3, 2005 (aged 100)|
Bedford, Massachusetts, United States
Ernst Walter Mayr (5 July 1904, Kempten, Germany – 3 February 2005, Bedford, Massachusetts), was a German American scientist. He was one of the 20th century's leading evolutionary biologists. He was also a well-known taxonomist, tropical explorer, ornithologist, historian of science, and naturalist. He was a leading contributor to the modern evolutionary synthesis. He was especially interested in how new species formed.
Mayr joined the faculty of Harvard University in 1953, where he also served as director of the Museum of Comparative Zoology from 1961 to 1970. He retired in 1975 as emeritus professor of zoology, showered with honors.
After his retirement, he went on to publish more than 200 articles, in a variety of journals—more than some reputable scientists publish in their entire careers; 14 of his 25 books were published after he was 65. Even as a centenarian, he continued to write books.
Mayr was awarded the Linnean Society's prestigious Darwin-Wallace Medal in 1958. He was never awarded a Nobel Prize, because there is no Prize for evolutionary biology. He commented that Darwin would not have received one, either. Mayr did win a 1999 Crafoord Prize. That prize honors basic research in fields that do not qualify for Nobel awards, and is administered by the same organization as the Nobel Prize.
Ernst Mayr approached the problem with a definition for the concept species. He wrote that a species is not just a group of individuals that look similar, but a group that can breed only among themselves.
When populations of organisms get isolated, the sub-populations will start to differ by genetic drift and natural selection over a period of time. This way, they will evolve into new species. The most rapid genetic reorganization occurs in extremely small populations that have been isolated. This happens if a species gets trapped on an island, for example.
Today, it is accepted that reproductive isolation is by far the most frequent cause of species splitting, and that geographical separation is the most frequent cause of this isolation. This was Mayr's most characteristic idea. Debate continues over the extent to which speciation occurs when a population is not so isolated.
- Mayr, Ernst (1942). Systematics and the origin of species, from the viewpoint of a zoologist. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
- Mayr, Ernst (1963). Animal species and evolution. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press.
- Mayr, Ernst (1976). Evolution and the diversity of life : selected essays. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press.
- Mayr, Ernst and William B. Provine (eds) 1980. The evolutionary synthesis. Harvard University Press, reprinted 1998 with new preface as ISBN 0-674-27226-9.
- Mayr, Ernst (1982). The growth of biological thought: diversity, evolution, and inheritance. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press.
- Mayr, Ernst (1988). Toward a new philosophy of biology: observations of an evolutionist. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. pp. 564.
- Ashlock, Peter D. & Mayr, Ernst (1991). Principles of systematic zoology. New York: McGraw-Hill.
- Mayr, Ernst. One long argument: Charles Darwin and the genesis of modern evolutionary thought (Questions of Science). Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
- Mayr, Ernst (1997). This is biology: the science of the living world. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
- Diamond, Jared M.; Mayr, Ernst (2001). The birds of northern Melanesia: speciation, ecology & biogeography. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Mayr, Ernst (2001). What evolution is. New York: Basic Books.
- Mayr, Ernst (2004). What makes biology unique?: considerations on the autonomy of a scientific discipline. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
- Gill F.B. 1994. Ernst Mayr, the ornithologist. Evolution 48 (1): 12–18. 
- Coyne J.A. 2005. Ernst Mayr (1904–2005). Science 307 (5713): 1212–1213. (no free access)
- Diamond J. 2005. Obituary: Ernst Mayr (1904–2005). Nature 433 (7027): 700–701. (no free access)
- Mayr, Ernst 1942. Systematics and the origin of species, from the viewpoint of a zoologist. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.