James F. Crow, 1916-2012

James F. Crow. (Credit: Millard Susman)

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, there’s a matter on which I’d like your advice.’ He must have seen how flattered I was at being asked because he quickly added, ‘That doesn’t mean I’ll take it. It only means I want to hear it.’

-Daniel Hartl.

James Crow, Professor Emeritus of Genetics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, enjoyed a successful scientific career that spanned some seventy years. Crow was most widely recognized and honored for his research in the field of population genetics. With Motoo Kimura, Crow co-authored a book titled, An Introduction to Population Genetics Theory (1970), which focused on the mathematical basis of population genetics and which is now considered a classic of the field.

Born on January 18, 1916 in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, Crow was exposed to the importance of education early on, as his father was a teacher at Ursinus College and later at Friends University in Witchita, Kansas, which Crow attended. Throughout his schooling, Crow enjoyed physics and chemistry, and ended up double majoring in chemistry and biology. In 1941 he earned his doctorate degree in genetics at the University of Texas-Austin, where he also played viola in the student orchestra. This is also where he met his wife, Ann, who was a clarinetist.

Crow next spent seven years at Dartmouth before moving to the University of Wisconsin, where he remained for the rest of his life. Crow’s collaborator Kimura joined Crow’s lab at Wisconsin in 1961, where he spent the next two years working on important problems like the fixation probability of a newly occurring mutation and the “infinite alleles model.”

(Credit: W. Hoffmann)

Over the course of his career, Crow witnessed the discovery of the structure of DNA, the rise of computer technology, cloning and the sequencing of the complete human genome. He stayed current with scientific several fields and was always curious about new research and findings. He became a respected leader in his field and served on a genetics committee set up by the National Academy of Sciences to assess mutational damage in those exposed to radiation from the atomic weapons dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He also developed the concept of genetic load, a measure of how fitness may be reduced by selection, and applied it to the rate at which natural selection would remove deleterious mutations from a population.

Remembered for his ability to explain concepts in ways that others could understand, Crow was described as a “brilliant mind and a fabulous storyteller.” His writings on genetics gained international traction and are now commonly referred to as “Crow’s Notes.” During his career, genetics was a growing and changing field; when asked by his students to give them a hint about questions that might be posed on their exams, Crow would often reply, “the questions are the same every year but the answers are different.”


I have never met Professor Crow, but I myself have developed a strong feeling about his ability and reliability from reading his papers.

-Linus Pauling

Known for being social and maintaining a positive outlook on life, Crow enjoyed parties and other avenues that afforded him the opportunity to influence fellow scientists. (One such avenue was his work with the journal Genetics, for which he edited the “Perspectives” section from 1987 until 2008, where he published scientific anecdotes from major scientists in the field of genetics.) One of the scientists influenced by his work was Linus Pauling, who often referenced Crow’s research in his own writings and speeches.

One notable example came about in 1962, when Pauling began writing “Fallout,” a piece discussing nuclear weapons tests that he hoped to publish in The Saturday Evening Post.  As he was developing his text that February, Pauling wrote to Crow, asking if he would be willing to rewrite any sections that he felt might need it and to advise him on any other aspects that needed to be revised or omitted. Crow responded with a three page handwritten letter, providing only minor mark-ups on the actual text, but adding several comments regarding word choice, making sure that Pauling felt no pressure to credit him for the revisions. “Your article fills the bill,” he noted, “I see no need for me to write anything additional.”

Crow did, however, include a quote of his own that he said was published in one of his public affairs pamphlets.  It read,

The harm from fallout is spread over space and time so thinly that the increased risk to any individual is too small to measure, but if all the damaged individuals could be identified and brought into one place at one time it would be regarded by everyone as a major catastrophe.

He concluded his letter by inviting Pauling to visit his lab in Madison, Wisconsin.

Later that year, in an article titled “Genetic Effects of Weapons Test,” published in December in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Pauling once again referenced Crow’s research on exposure to radiation and its deleterious effects on children. This research led Pauling to look into the possibility that carbon-14, a by-product produced by neutron irradiation of nitrogen-14 during nuclear weapons tests, could do extensive genetic and somatic damage. Based on estimates for radiation dosages published by Crow, Pauling determined that one’s exposure to carbon-14 over the entire lifetime of the isotope is actually four times higher than what had normally been assumed for worldwide radioactive fallout.

It is clear from Pauling’s papers that he learned a lot from James Crow’s extensive research on genetics and on the effects of radiation. The two also shared a taste for public service, as Crow chaired various civic organizations while staying engaged in his studies for the remainder of his life. Crow died of congestive heart failure on January 4, 2012, aged 95, at his home in Madison. He spoke frequently with his colleagues until the end.

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