James F. Crow, 1916-2012

3 minute read

I received today the sad news that my friend and colleague James F. Crow has died, at the age of 95. Jim was a legend in the field of population genetics, who remained active until his final year.

James F. Crow

Jim was always extraordinarily gracious and generous with his time, and was kind to me throughout the ten years I have known him. At our last meeting, before I went to Siberia last summer, Jim told me the story of his meeting Dmitry Belyaev, early in the days of his famous fox experiment. I was eager to see the foxes and I conveyed Jim’s greetings and reminiscences to the researchers in Novosibirisk. Again and again during the years, I found Jim to be a rich source of information about topics in population genetics. Even as my work brought me to consider fundamentals often outside the current mainstream, Jim invariably had encountered similar problems and given them deep thought long before I arrived on the scene.

During the last 25 years, Jim took on a role as unofficial historian for the field of genetics. He coedited the Perspectives feature in the journal Genetics, and for many of those years wrote the lion’s share of them. He was proud to note that his birth coincided with the first issue of the journal (January,1916), but although he arrived on schedule, the first issue of the journal was mailed two months late! Reviewing the major figures in the history of genetics, Jim gave a narrative history of the science often from his own memories.

During the next few months, the journal Genetics will be running a series of perspectives in Jim’s honor, reviewing aspects of his extraordinary career. I recommend the introduction to the series, printed in the December 2011 issue Turelli:Langley:2011, and the first entry written by Daniel Hartl about Jim as a teacher and advisor Hartl:Crow:2011. From the editorial introduction by Michael Turelli and Charles Langley:

Jim Crow is a living link between our generations and the founders of population genetics. Jim was Sewall Wright's colleague at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, for decades (19551988); Jim initiated a friendship with Ronald Fisher over an impromptu champagne tte--tte in the 1940s; and he hosted J. B. S. Haldane for a memorable lecture visit to Madison in the early 1960s (after learning from the New York Times that North Carolina had just canceled a public lecture by this famous Communist). There are few population geneticists who do not owe Jim a significant intellectual debt; none are unaware of his mastery of our field and of human interactions. For many of us, Crow and Kimura (1970) was an inspiring and elegant introduction to the mathematical models that form the foundation of population genetics theory. Crow instantiates the ideal of a cherished era when manners and dress were a sign of gentility. And no one who meets Jim is surprised to learn that he is an accomplished violist.

And from Hartl’s contribution:

Professor Crow ran his laboratory on the principles of bringing smart people together to pursue their passions and encouraging interaction, mutual respect and support, constructive criticism, and the free sharing of ideas and resources. There were no formal group meetings or reports, as there was so much daily interaction that group meetings would have been superfluous. He would advise, suggest, and encourage, but never direct or cajole. The standard of mutual respect was set by Professor Crow himself and extended not only to members of the lab but also to everyone in the field. I never heard him utter an unkind word about anyone. He also treated everyone in the lab as a colleague. One day he came to me and said, Dan, theres a matter on which Id like your advice. He must have seen how flattered I was at being asked because he quickly added, That doesnt mean Ill take it. It only means I want to hear it.

Hartl gives some of the flavor of Crow’s laboratory in the 1960’s, when he was already one of the most prominent geneticists in the world, and was a frequent host to the field’s legends and advisor to some of the brightest students. I can only wish that someday I will be so lucky.

Several years ago, colleagues from several departments here at the University of Wisconsin-Madison succeeded in a long-time ambition of Jim’s to found an Institute for the Study of Evolution. He had envisioned that the institute should be named for Sewall Wright, who had been important to Jim himself and forms a major part of the legacy of genetics and evolution. But the future institute’s members insisted instead to name the new entity in honor of Jim. It is a fitting legacy for a great evolutionary geneticist.