James F. Crow 1916 - 2012

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James F. Crow died peacefully in his sleep in Madison, Wisconsin on January 4th at the age of 95, having nearly reached his 96th birthday. Jim, as everyone who knew him called him, was one of the most important population geneticists of the 20th century, a major figure in the generation that followed Fisher, Wright, and Haldane.

CrowMishima72.JPG CrowKimura72g.JPG

Jim Crow in Mishima, Japan, 1972               Crow and Kimura in discussion, Mishima railroad station, 1972            photos by J.F.

His father was a cytologist who did graduate work soon after the rediscovery of Mendel’s work. Jim did his graduate work in the 1930s at the University of Texas, where he had gone in hopes of working with H. J. Muller (who had, however, already left). He later had opportunities to work with Muller, and always considered himself primarily influenced by Muller. After working at Dartmouth College during and after World War II, he moved to the University of Wisconsin - Madison, where he spent the rest of his career. His many honors included election to the National Academy of Sciences and as a Foreign Member of the Royal Society.

He was famous as a teacher and mentor of numerous population geneticists, of whom I am one. In the 1950s he started traveling to Japan; he had many Japanese collaborators and students. Motoo Kimura was his Ph.D. student, and began a longtime collaboration with him. In 1970 they published An Introduction to Population Genetics Theory, which became the standard textbook of that field. Jim’s plain and folksy speaking style was the same as his writing style – he was enormously prolific and famous for his clear exposition. Among its many effects on the field, the book popularized Gustave Malécot’s way of defining inbreeding coefficients and using them to compute covariances among relatives for quantitative characters.

Jim’s many papers included major work on mutational load and other forms of genetic load, the concepts of inbreeding and variance effective population number, and expanding on R. A. Fisher’s and H. J. Muller’s theory of the evolutionary advantage of recombination. In the 1950s and early 1960s he was a major participant in the debate over genetic variation in natural populations, arguing against Theodosius Dobzhansky’s view that attributed it largely to balancing selection. With Motoo Kimura in 1964 he derived the expected heterozygosity brought about by neutral mutation, and he played a major role in assisting Kimura in effectively presenting his case for neutral mutation. He helped bring Sewall Wright to Madison in 1955, and Jim and Ann Crow were important as friends during Wright’s later years.

In addition to these he contributed numerous insights in his many papers. He was interested in all of genetics, and read its literature widely. As an invariably polite, surprisingly modest, and easily approachable mentor who was always interested in clarifying and simplifying models, he had a great effect. Through his lab passed much of a generation of theoretically-inclined population geneticists. If your name was Morton, Kimura, Maruyama, Hiraizumi, Kerr, Sandler, Hartl, Langley, Gillespie, Ewens, Li, Nagylaki, Aoki, Lande, Bull, Gimelfarb, Kondrashov, Phillips, or Wu, you were among the many who were in Jim’s debt, and remember him warmly as friend and role model.

27 Comments

Seemingly, an example of a long, well-lived, productive life.

Not everyone can have his talent, but I hope that we can get past current and also long-standing social and economic problems, so that every American can have the opportunity to emulate his example.

Sounds like a great guy. Must have been a bummer to be called Jim Crow, though.

Chris Lawson said:

Must have been a bummer to be called Jim Crow, though.

He didn’t let it bother him. He could always have insisted that everyone call him James or Jimmie if he were concerned about that.

In the late 1950s the campus chapter of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) got him to agree to be their faculty advisor. I think it just amused them to have someone with his name officially listed as associated with them.

(Young folks who don’t know what “Jim Crow” is should look it up in Wikipedia. Jim Crow was really no joke back then).

Dr Crow graciously helped me out via email some years ago over some questions I had about Haldane’s cost of Natural Selection papers. He was the epitome of the expression “a gentleman and a scholar”.

Dave Wisker said:

Dr Crow graciously helped me out via email some years ago over some questions I had about Haldane’s cost of Natural Selection papers. He was the epitome of the expression “a gentleman and a scholar”.

I have read several obituary notices now, and that phrase keeps cropping up.

Let me add one ancecdote. When I did my senior honors thesis in Madison in 1964, Jim was supervising it but he was very busy. Although he was not an M.D., he had been appointed Acting Dean of the Medical School, to help calm down conflicts there. So when I turned in the thesis to him, I was worried about whether he would turn it in to the University on time. I said “I wouldn’t want to be walking across the stage at my graduation and have them call out ‘Stop! You didn’t turn in your Honors Thesis!’ “.

On the day of the graduation we were in the football stadium, and it was very hot and sunny. There was a small stage, maybe 1 foot high, set up on the field, and we Bachelor of Science graduates formed a line and paraded across it, and were handed red plastic degree holders (which contained a form you filled out and turned in to get sent your actual degree).

Jim was sitting on a chair on the stage, in an academic robe, in his capacity as Dean of the Medical School. He looked very wilted in the heat. As I stepped up on the stage he caught my eye, and said “Go ahead … I’m not stopping you!”

I met James Crow once when I was a graduate student attending an evolution conference. I got behind him in the lunch line and we chatted for a few minutes about the food and the meetings. After we got our food my advisor, who was behind me in the line, complimented me on how cool I was. I said “ what do you mean”? He said “ you don’t know who that was do you”? I said “no, who was it”? When he told me, I almost fainted. During the rest of the conference, I got the chance to see James interact with many presenters and graduate students. I can only say that the term gentleman really is appropriate.

Years ago Jim Crow edited and wrote a series of historical anecdotes for the journal Genetics. I looked forward to them each month and often made use of them in Genetics classes. The breadth was amazing.

fpd said:

Years ago Jim Crow edited and wrote a series of historical anecdotes for the journal Genetics. I looked forward to them each month and often made use of them in Genetics classes. The breadth was amazing.

Jim and Bill Dove co-edited for many years the series of historical perspectives on genetics for Genetics. (Many are available, free at http://www.genetics.org – click there on the link Perspectives). Jim wrote or co-wrote quite a few of them, and they are enlightening and fun to read. The series has continued; it is hard to think of any science journal that has done a better job of conveying the history of its field. The most recent two of them – which I am told Jim did get to see – are on Jim’s achievements as a mentor and in public service.

Great write-up Joe. I only met Jim once, since I am not a pop gen person, I did not know who he was until after the fact. Like when I met Lewontin or Wright, I was just a dumb molecular biologist! Jim asked my lots of questions about retrotransposition and if anyone had a handle on the “genetics” of these entities? No was my answer then and no is my answer now. The list of those who passed through Jim’s lab reminds me of how old we all are. With Walter dying last year and my grandson starting to think about college it is time I left science to the youngins.

Joe Felsenstein said:

fpd said:

Years ago Jim Crow edited and wrote a series of historical anecdotes for the journal Genetics. I looked forward to them each month and often made use of them in Genetics classes. The breadth was amazing.

Jim and Bill Dove co-edited for many years the series of historical perspectives on genetics for Genetics. (Many are available, free at http://www.genetics.org – click there on the link Perspectives). Jim wrote or co-wrote quite a few of them, and they are enlightening and fun to read. The series has continued; it is hard to think of any science journal that has done a better job of conveying the history of its field. The most recent two of them – which I am told Jim did get to see – are on Jim’s achievements as a mentor and in public service.

Was the apposite pairing of surnames pure serendipity, or was there a certain amount of mischief?

Kevin B said:

Joe Felsenstein said:

Jim and Bill Dove co-edited for many years the series of historical perspectives on genetics for Genetics. …

Was the apposite pairing of surnames pure serendipity, or was there a certain amount of mischief?

I am sure it was unnoticed by most everyone. I can’t recall anyone noting that Jim’s name was a bird name, not when there was the more dramatic issue of him being “Jim Crow”. Some years earlier, though, the head of the UW-Madison Poultry Science department was a Dr. Bird. [Folks, could we avoid a long thread on this?]

When I was doing my PostDoc in Sean Carroll’s lab at UW-Madison I met several times with Jim. He was generous and very gracious.

I was interested in developmental constraints and their impact on evolution and came with a general skepticism about the rhetorically overblown power of selection in the face of those constraints. I had written a short paper bemoaning a fashionable, at the time, a priori Selectionism. He enthusiastically read the paper and we discussed it at length. While he didn’t agree with my desire to corral selection to the limited choice of the possible phenotypes that I wanted to, he was always open to talk and discuss. And his enthusiasm was boundless. I was very sad to hear about his passing and was reminded again at the honor of having had the chance to learn from him.

I have received a number of emails paying tribute to Jim. It seems appropriate to post those tributes here. (If any of their authors think that this is inappropriate, let me know and I will remove yours). I will do these in separate comments. Here is the first:

Steve Orzack wrote:

All of this makes me sad. I think Jim died too young, no matter what solace we can take from the pleasure in life he appears to have had even to the end.

Elliott Sober sent me the following the other day:

Also, did you hear that Jim Crow died two days ago? I had lunch with him last month and he was totally lucid and interested in talking about a wide range of topics. He couldn’t walk more than ten paces then without getting out of breath. I think he had congestive heart failure, though I’m not sure if that is what killed him. He was cheerful even about getting old and facing death.

Brian Charlesworth wrote:

He was definitely one of the most all-round admirable people I’ve ever met.

Norman Johnson wrote:

Thanks, Joe, for the tribute to Jim. I was a student with Chung-I Wu many years ago, so Jim was my academic grandfather. I had the pleasure of meeting him several times, and on having him edit a Perspectives I wrote for Genetics (on Muller’s 1942 paper).

I did not know that Jim’s father was a cytogeneticist.

Michael Turelli wrote:

In case you haven’t heard this story, I got it from Jim’s friend Seymour Abrahamson yesterday.

Yesterday was the memorial service for Jim. Millard Susman presented a truly wonderful eulogy which covered much of his professional career and infused it with memorable anecdotes. one of with which I was not familiar . An admiring female student after class said to Jim “Prof Crow You make complicated things so clear you nust be the most simple-minded Professor in the entire University.”

as Jim would end Cheers

and Michael added in a later email:

As part of my work on the series of articles I commissioned for Genetics to honor Jim, I spoke to him about two months ago. He was clearly having some physical problems, but was in great form – telling me wonderful stories about his interactions with Fisher and Haldane.

Chris Day wrote:

As to the Crow-Dove coupling, it was noticed and the source of smiles. As you probably know Jim was one to find humour in such things. I’d recommend his introduction to a small concert he gave to our department for his 93rd birthday, it is typical Jim and hilarious. The recital was just before the Genetics Colloquium with John Yin and a Krista Stewart (undergraduate at the time). He often connected with the undergraduates through his love of music.

http://www.biotech.wisc.edu/webcams[…]0090218_1500

Ward Watt wrote:

Jim’s passing is truly the end of an era – a great gentleman as well as a great scientist. I didn’t know him nearly as well as you, of course, but on several occasions he was of great help to me in one way or another. Interestingly he told me once that John Gerould at Dartmouth had mentored him when he was a junior faculty member there in his first appointment. Gerould was one of the earliest Mendelians, actually pioneered the use of my butterfly genus Colias for evolutionary studies, and may indeed have been the first to actually demonstrate both a selection pressure against a specific allele in the wild, and the adaptive value of camouflage coloration as an anti-predation mechanism. Odd how these connections thread their way through diverse people. I think Jim probably supported many more of those than most other people.

I had the pleasure of meeting Jim, Wright, Dobzhansky,etc. at the Evolution meeting in Austin, TX in 1955. Was fortunate to be invited to join his lab. Enjoyed, learned and made many fascinating friends. Among many things I remember Jim sayiing “I believe some people who have the potential to live forever have already been born, but I am likely too old to be one of them”. Sadly he was correct. Another endearing trait, when he was angry about somebody, or thing, he would quietly clean out a lab sink, and then happily go about his business! Like all who knew him, I am grateful to have known him.

It is good to hear from Jack Bennett [hi, I think we met once] who was (as he implied) one of Jim’s first two students.

It is notable how many people have reacted to Jim’s death as if he were not almost 96, but was a researcher at the height of his career. This is a tribute to the active interest Jim took in genetics right up to the end.

John Hawks, who is in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin, has a nice post at his blog (here) which is an appreciation of Jim.

… and Dan Hartl (who was Jim’s Ph.D. student) has now written an obituary for Jim in the journal Genetics (which you can read here).

… and here is the obituary in Science by Jim’s colleagues Millard Sussman and Bill Dove.

Paulo Otto of the University of São Paulo in Brazil has written a good appreciation of Jim in the Brazilian journal Genetics and Molecular Biology which you will find here. He has also produced a bibliography listing almost all of Jim’s publications. It is here.

At Jim’s home department, the Laboratory of Genetics of the University of Wisconsin has a page with appreciative remembrances by many former colleagues of Jim’s. These will be found here. Be sure to visit the tabs on the left side of the page for biographical material, photos, audio and video files, and links to other obituaries.

Here is an obituary at the web site of the funeral home, plus some more memorial comments by people who knew Jim. I have also corrected the link to the memorial page at Jim’s department (see above comment).

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This page contains a single entry by Joe Felsenstein published on January 11, 2012 4:51 PM.

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