Jim was known to the world as an outstanding geneticist, teacher, and statesmen – but to many of us in the Laboratory of Genetics, he was simply one of the best colleagues one could ask for. He was in his office most days – up until the end of his life – reading papers, writing manuscripts, and keeping up on the latest news in and out of science. He seemed perpetually in a good mood, and could talk to anyone about any subject matter. He always asked the most interesting and insightful questions at seminars, yet was so down to earth that he managed to include everyone in the discussion. He will be sorely missed.
On these pages, we have compiled a list of articles, tributes, and stories about Jim.
Curriculum Vitae of James F. Crow is available.
|20||From Jim Bull
Professor of Molecular Biology
University of Texas-Austin
I got the news on the 5th. Sad, but at the same time, it's difficult to imagine that anyone could have lived a fuller life that benefitted so many people. My recollections of Jim continue to inspire me, both for his intellect and his generosity.
I cherish the days I had with him (1977-1981, with two of the winters spent in Sussex). I did not — and don't — belong in the leagues of the many scientists he trained, and it was amazing to have been accepted to work with him as a postdoc. Luckily, I had Russ Lande, Ken Aoki, Sasha Gimelfarb, Bill Engels, Ellen Wijsman and others to help me along. The lab also had a long-time associate, Raissa Berg, a Drosophila biologist who had worked with Muller in Russia; she knew lots of historical anecdotes and had considerable insight on early theories on sex determination (of special interest to me). Carter Dennison and Charlie Cotterman were Genetics faculty who interacted with the lab extensively; Walter Fitch (Physiological Chemistry, now called Biomolecular Chemistry) was an occasional visitor, seeking mathematical advice and muscle tissue for myoglobin. I knew all these associates well, but I got to know Charlie quite well.
There was more than one occasion on which I went to Jim with a question about some idea I was working on and he gave me a response that I not only failed to understand, but that seemed far afield from what was likely correct. After working on the problem for months, I eventually came to realize that what he had said was right. By the time I left Madison, the frequency of these events had probably not diminished, but the turnaround time for me to see the legitimacy of his answer had shortened immensely.
Then about 7 years ago, I sent Jim a theory manuscript to look over as a courtesy, as I thought he might be interested. The manuscript was either submitted or in press, definitely not at an early stage. He wrote back with several insightful comments, even noting that one of our figures was incorrect (he was right). Somewhere in the years of aging, I fantasized he might drop to my level, but it never happened.
The Crow and Kimura book was the bible of population genetics theory. Thus it had always seemed to me that Jim would emphasize theory whenever discussing biology. I was quite surprised to discover that he had a strong interest in experimental work, and he had a big influence on my pursuit of experiments that stuck with me for the remainder of my career. The experimental work I was doing in his lab was on temperature-dependent sex determination in turtles, and he kept asking mechanistic questions that led me to do several experiments I would have otherwise neglected. In this respect, he was quite different than John Maynard Smith (with whom I worked during the same period of time). And I never published with Jim — he was not one to put his name on papers to which he had not contributed. Indeed, I don't recall if he published with the other postdocs and grad students in the lab.
My older sister had taken Genetics from Jim maybe 6 years before I arrived at Madison (this would have been around 1971). On the first day of class, Jim had the practice of photographing the ~300 students in his class, 3 at a time with name placards, and he would study those pictures to learn student faces and names. My sister said there was a legend from a previous year that, on something like the third day of the semester, a student was in the back row smoking; when Jim walked in and saw the individual, he spoke aloud to the effect that "Mr. Johnson, there is no smoking in class." The students were stunned and figured that he already knew ALL of them by name inside of 2 days. I once mentioned this rumor to Jim; he laughed and did not recall the event, but figured the student must have been one of the few photos he had studied to that point in the class.
I was very privileged to have had time with Jim and with others in UW Genetics, and I appreciate the support (tolerance) I was afforded back then.
I am sorry for our loss and send condolences to his Madison colleagues, who will miss him even more. Jim was clearly maintaining a strong presence there to the end. It would have been wonderful to have shared his insights for so many years.
|21||From Mark E. Furth
Ph.D., 1978, Curriculum in Molecular Biology, University of Wisconsin-Madison,
Executive Director and Scientific Liaison, Wake Forest Innovations, Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, Winston-Salem, NC 27101
I was a Ph.D. student in the Curriculum in Molecular Biology with William Dove in the mid-1970s. The Genetics building, a stone’s throw from Bill’s digs in the McArdle Laboratory, was a second scientific home. Consonant with the driving spirit of the era, I focused on fundamental mechanisms in a simple model (bacteriophage lambda), while aspiring eventually to use the rapidly expanding molecular toolkit to tackle human development and disease.
In this context the Population Genetics course taught by James Crow initially struck me as an arcane diversion. Moreover, as an undergraduate at Harvard I had been aware of the schism between the university’s cell/molecular biologists, who had stoked my zeal for their field, and the organismic/evolutionary types, who my “heroes” labeled archaic. Jim changed my world-view. We knew almost nothing in those days about the human genome, but he implanted a nascent understanding of what a further four decades of research has made manifest. Namely, most important traits and pathologies depend on the interactions of multiple genes and environmental factors, and along with our molecular dissecting kit we require a quantitative systems approach to explain human biology.
Two memories from Jim’s teaching stand out. The first exemplifies his respect for a venerable colleague and the history of Genetics, the second his concern for his field’s relevance in society.
Sewall Wright, then in his late 80s, foreshadowed Jim’s future as a fully engaged professor emeritus. Jim invited him to present a series of lectures in the course. The opportunity to receive the tablets of population genetics theory directly from one of its legendary founders had biblical overtones. However, Jim recognized that Wright’s presentation style – he animatedly wrote equations on the chalkboard (!) in tiny print with his right hand, and with almost equal speed erased them with his left – would be impossible for us students to follow. The solution was for Carter Denniston, Jim’s capable teaching collaborator, to repeat the material from each of Wright’s talks at the next class session at a pace we could hope to comprehend.
The issue of genetics and racial politics evoked a different side of Jim’s passion as a teacher. A quarter century after the fall of the Third Reich, articles in the scholarly and popular press by psychologists Richard Herrnstein and Arthur Jensen and public pronouncements by William Shockley, a Nobel laureate in physics, revived notions of racial eugenics under the new label “Meritocracy”. The topic became bitterly divisive on many university campuses, including Madison’s. Jim’s approach was rational and scholarly, but reflected his absolute commitment to principles of equality. He and Carter led the class through a deep dive into the literature on the heritability of IQ, going back to the twin studies of Cyril Burt. Elegantly, objectively, never raising his voice, Jim helped us achieve a nuanced understanding of the science and its implications, while effectively skewering anti-egalitarian conclusions that were threatening to become respectable.
A final memory from Jim Crow centers on his beloved viola. Having learned that Bill Dove’s new grad student was taking violin lessons with a member of the university’s resident Pro Arte String Quartet, Jim kindly invited me to join an evening of quartet playing at his home. Regrettably, at that time I was in remedial adult student mode, having played the fiddle only sporadically through college. Worse, my previous exposure to string quartets comprised a few sessions back in tenth grade. With the opening bars of one of Beethoven’s Opus 18 works, it must have been obvious to Jim and two regular partners that, even playing second violin, the new kid was in musical waters over his head. With perfect grace they frequently rescued me from drowning. By the end of the evening, we even made a credible go of Antonín Dvořák’s “American” String Quartet, with Jim reveling in its rich viola part.
More than 30 years later a visit to Madison afforded a last opportunity to talk, but, alas, not to play, music with Jim. By then I had evolved into a competent chamber music addict and had learned to switch hit between violin and viola. I showed Jim a photo of the viola that a French luthier recently had made for me. We compared its dimensions with Jim’s “career” instrument, the large (about 3/4 inch longer than mine), chocolate-toned viola he had acquired from the Pro Arte’s Bernard Milofsky. Its distinctive voice in Jim’s hands, like the lucidity of his writing and teaching, remains etched in memory as a lifelong standard to emulate.
|22||From Wai Y. Tan
Department of Mathematical Sciences
The University of Memphis, Memphis, TN
It is indeed very sad to learn that our great teacher has passed away.
Prof. Crow was a great man, a great teacher and a great scientist.
|23||From Kenichi Aoki
Department of Biological Sciences
The University of Tokyo
I am deeply grateful to Millard Susman for taking the time to write me about this sad news. Someone contacted the National Institute of Genetics in Mishima, Japan, where Jim Crow was a frequent visitor, and I had heard from them several days ago. His many Japanese friends including myself are in a state of collective shock at the moment. I will forward the fine obituary to them in case they have not seen it.
In addition to the four years I spent as a grad student, I had many opportunities to enjoy Jim's company during his frequent visits to Japan. Someone once said of JFK that he had the talent of enjoying himself and adding to the enjoyment of others. This applies perhaps even more strongly to JFC. On one occasion we went with John Wakeley to a beer hall in Tokyo where they had live performances by accordion players, violinists, and opera singers making a little on the side. Jim immediately became friends with the performers and got up on the stage with a borrowed violin. Unfortunately, the place had closed down on his next visit.
On his last visit when he was accompanied by his daughter, Cathy Rasmussen; we went to the Ueno zoo near the University of Tokyo. He had fond memories of the gorilla cages, which he had previously gone to see with Ann. And that is the last time I saw Jim.
|25||From Marjorie Russel
Laboratory of Genetics
What a special person he was. I last saw him a few years ago when he came to Rockefeller for some memorial tribute to Lederberg. He gave a lovely talk, and as best I could tell, he hadn't changed AT ALL over the years. Of course when I took an introductory genetics class from him, I must have been 22, and my conception of older adults has evolved a lot since then.
Still, a long, healthy life filled with work and play that he loved — plus a very short final period — is pretty good.