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.
|26||From Elaine Johansen Mange
University of Massachusetts, Amherst
Arthur and I have so many wonderful recollections from our years in Madison (mid-1950's to 1961), which Rayla Temin agrees was a truly golden period for Jim's students. One delightful example: While recently exchanging some memories with old friends, I learned that in 1956 Augie Mueller and Jim had met weekly to study finite mathematics together! It's all the more interesting because Augie was then a grad student of Dr. Harold Wolfe in the zoology dept., rather than being in the genetics dept.
Most people think that huge universities can't possibly provide opportunities for close interactions between professors and undergraduates. But Jim would sometimes invite the very top performers in his general genetics course (of ca. 150 students) to participate in a special small seminar group that he organized just for them. They were also given opportunities to do research projects. Among these students, Dan Hartl, Joe Felsenstein, Carter Denniston, Bill Engels and several others went on to become prominent geneticists themselves.
Jim also encouraged students to ask questions during his lectures, and had the gracious habit of turning some prosaic questions into much more sophisticated ones. But there was a limit to his renowned patience — and one day, after a long-winded query from one student, he responded: "Either that's an immensely profound question, or you haven't listened to a word I've said for the past 20 minutes!" The rest of the class broke into wild applause, because for weeks this guy had been making a real pill of himself. (As a genetics TA, I was a witness to this event.)
Crow's Genetics Notes, regularly revised and translated into many languages, were originally spiral-bound and printed on only one side, with a blank page on the right so that students could jot down additional notes. He told me once that — in a typically thoughtful gesture — he had asked the publisher to print some copies with the blank page on the left side, for the benefit of lefties (such as myself) — but they wouldn't do that. This highly popular publication sold well for decades, and could perhaps have made him wealthy if he hadn't donated all the proceeds to the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation.
Money wasn't a major concern of his. When the Medical School nearly blew up at one point because the surgeons on the faculty threatened to quit if their additional outside salaries were capped at what seemed to most people like a colossal sum of money (maybe ca. $75,000?), Jim was appointed Dean of the Medical School partly in order to mediate and solve that problem. He was amazed at their demands and said he couldn't imagine what he'd do with that kind of money or even a fraction of it.
One evening during the period when the new Medical Genetics Dept. (also headed by Jim) was moving from the small brick Genetics Building on Henry Mall into its newly constructed quarters in the Medical School, Arthur and I were returning with Jim to our new lab from dinner in the med school cafeteria. As we passed by the occasional chains dangling from emergency shower outlets in the hallways, we all confessed that we felt tempted to pull one to see what happens. "Let's do it!" Jim said as he yanked at one of them in our corridor. A deluge of water poured from the ceiling, but then neither he nor Arthur (getting showered while trying) could figure out how to turn it off! Since the floor of this hallway was piled high with boxes of materials that hadn't yet been moved into our new quarters, the situation started to look rather dicey as a small flood of water began to threaten them. We managed to find some mops & buckets in a janitor's closet and did some frantic mopping. Jim also called the janitorial staff for help, and from them we learned that there were no turn-off switches for those emergency vats of water built into the ceiling! Once opened, they just emptied out their full ??-gallon capacity. Needless to say, Arthur and I were glad that Jim — rather than one of us — had pulled that chain...
Our religiously observed daily coffee breaks in the lab were always fun, where we discussed genetics, politics, and anything else that came to mind. One recurring topic was the design of generic graphs and charts that were vague enough to explain virtually anything.
The outside socializing was terrific, too, and amazingly democratic: Parties might include professors, visiting luminaries, postdocs, grad students, lab assistants, and even occasional secretaries and dishwashers. Once in a great while, when planning a special party, we'd ask Jim & Ann if we could have it in their home — and they usually agreed. As others have noted, Ann was as warm and welcoming as Jim.
The idea for one party was hatched after Jim returned from a big event in NYC where H. J. Muller had been honored on his 70th birthday. But during the final banquet Muller passed out and had to be hospitalized because (anticipating excitement & stress) he had taken some extra blood pressure medication. From this happening Jim concluded that 70-year-olds should probably celebrate that milestone when they're young enough to relax and enjoy it. So we decided to throw a surprise 70th birthday party for him on (I think) his 45th — complete with speeches, fake telegrams of congratulation, silly gifts, etc. [Two sample telegrams, probably composed by Larry Sandler, went something like this: "Happy Birthday, Jim! Hugs and kisses, Boopsie." "Happy Birthday, Jim! Who's Boopsie?? Love, Ann"] He quickly entered into the spirit of the occasion, and we all had a great time. Twenty-five years later we attended a big symposium in Madison that celebrated his actual 70th birthday, culminating in a banquet that he survived with aplomb.
Jim's sense of humor could be impish at times. One day he returned to the lab after lunch at the nearby Rennebohm Drugstore, looking very pleased with himself. When we asked what was up, he explained that he had noticed a sign over the big magazine rack in the drug store, inviting anybody who was offended by any of their offerings to complain to the management and get said magazine(s) removed. So he asked the manager to remove Time magazine from the rack because he was deeply offended by its politics. Needless to say, that didn't happen.
Music was extremely important in the lives of both Jim and Ann, and I think I recall his commenting in the biographical notes with his Scientific American articles that he settled on a scientific career after deciding that he might not have what it takes to be a professionally performing musician. But they shared their love of music with his students and others. Ann not only invited me to join her in singing with the Madison Philharmonic Chorus, but gave me a ride to and from rehearsals every week for a couple of years.
Decades later, to celebrate his 90th birthday Jim gave a viola recital for the Genetics Dept. I e-mailed him to ask whether it had been recorded. His response: “No, thank God, because I made some bloopers. Nevertheless, the audience loved it.” Thereafter he continued to perform regularly for his colleagues and also for fellow residents of the retirement home where he moved after Ann died.
Jim was very good about keeping in touch with former students, always responding quickly to any communiqués he received from us and others. He even took great interest in our son Steve when he was an undergrad at Wisconsin. (Steve was also lucky to have the Abrahamsons and Temins as surrogate parents during that period.) Jim attended both Steve's Phi Beta Kappa induction ceremony and his senior history thesis defense (where, Steve says, he asked some of the best questions) and afterwards wrote us congratulatory notes saying he felt very grandfatherly. Of course we were deeply touched.
Although we communicated only now and then, the last e-mail I received from him arrived on Nov. 23, 2011, soon after the untimely death of Lynn Margulis at age 73. He wrote: "This is sad news, but less sad than a lingering illness. She was a magnificent character — one of a kind." Of course, the same can be said for Jim, many times over.
|27||From Krishna Dronamraju
President, Foundation for Genetic Research,
I was introduced to Jim Crow by Victor McKusick from Johns Hopkins in the summer of 1965. We were both in Bar Harbor to speak in the summer course on medical genetics which was organized jointly by the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and the Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor. Like many others, I was greatly stimulated and impressed by Jim’s enthusiasm and intellect. Jim adored my mentor J.B.S. Haldane, whose ideas provided the foundation for the genetic load theory as well as the cost of evolution and many other areas of population genetics which deeply influenced Jim’s career and success as a scientist. Anyone who met Jim for more than five minutes would certainly hear him mention Haldane’s name. At least that was my impression.
Another fact I recall was his comment on left wing scientists. I moved to live permanently in the United States in 1963 when the cold war was going strong. Whenever I spoke about my mentor J.B.S. Haldane’s scientific work in my lectures someone in the audience invariably interrupted me saying “But wasn’t he a Communist?” and I always replied: “What has that got to do with his scientific work?” I was irritated by such comments. My connection with Haldane was on a scientific basis, but I did not share his politics. I presented my problem to Jim saying that there is some hostility towards Haldane. He instantly replied: “Don’t worry about it; all the best scientists are communists.” He was referring to the fact that the two heroes he worshipped, two great geneticists — Haldane and Herman Muller — were both Marxists and communists during parts of their lives. Many years ago, I was with Jim in Japan at the Twelfth International Congress of Genetics. I organized a Plenary Session, the Haldane Memorial Session — to pay tribute to my late mentor. It was an evening session and was well attended. Motoo Kimura, as chairman of the program committee, invited Jim to chair that session, and the speakers included Sewall Wright, John Fincham and me. It was certainly one of the happy times in Jim’s life.
Jim was a prolific writer. He contributed chapters to two of my books and a fine Foreword to another, “Selected Genetic Papers of J.B.S. Haldane” (Garland, New York, 1990), as well as a Preface to a fourth book, “What I Require from Life: Writings on Science and Life from J.B.S. Haldane” (Oxford university Press, 2009).
I dedicated my latest book, “Haldane, Mayr and Beanbag Genetics” (Oxford University Press 2011) to Jim and his longtime friend and colleague Motoo Kimura. Jim responded: "You have done a fine job of synthesizing a great deal of material and making sense out of it. This was a very interesting argument, carried on in a friendly way at a high intellectual plane, which you bring out. I am very pleased to have the book dedicated to me and I am sure that Motoo would have felt the same way.”
I always found Jim to be helpful with advice when approached. He was a man of high ethical and moral principles. I am so very glad that I visited him in Madison in June 2011. My wife and I took him out for lunch and later he gave us a guided tour of Frank Lloyd Wright – designed Unitarian church near the campus. As we said goodbye we knew that this would be the last time.
|28||From Allen Laughon
Professor, Laboratory of Genetics
University of Wisconsin-Madison
Jim was a big influence on students, which included me, back around 1980...
Midway through my graduate student days in the Biology Department at the University of Utah, a notice appeared announcing a seminar to be given by James Crow from the University of Wisconsin. Crow was a big name, famous for his work in population genetics, but I had never heard of the topic, something called hybrid dysgenesis in Drosophila. In anticipation of a big crowd, Jim's talk was held in the Chemistry auditorium, a much larger room than the modest lecture hall in our own building. And crowded it was, people sitting in the aisles, standing in the back; it was the most oversubscribed seminar I had witnessed on that campus. Jim was appreciative, and returned the favor with a captivating account of how a curious hybrid sterility phenomenon led to the discovery of P elements and their regulation by what would eventually turn out to be heritable small RNAs. He cheerfully took no credit for the work presented, acknowledging instead Bill Engels (who trained with Jim before taking a faculty post in the same department), John Sved, Margaret Kidwell and others. The audience paid no heed and erupted in thunderous applause followed by many eager questions. Everyone seemed to sense this was the vanguard of momentous events to follow, which of course was exactly what happened with P elements transforming (literally) developmental genetics. Jim couldn't have been more pleased.
|29||From Xin Sun
Associate Professor, Laboratory of Genetics
University of Wisconsin-Madison
In the past few weeks as I walk through the halls of the department or stop by the mail room, I kept expecting to run into Jim, in his usual friendliness. What I will miss most is his masterful way of blending exceptionally insightful comments into casual hallway conversations. One such conversation I had with him was on mutant allele inheritance imbalance of Fgfr, a gene that my lab studies. Jim knew much more than I did. The information that he offered in our five minute conversation was so fascinating that I went home and did more reading. I discovered that Jim knew the latest on this topic, as I am sure he was with a vast array of topics, science, music or others. A truly remarkable mind.
|30||From George Allez
Gaylord Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies
Thank you for sharing the sorrowful news of Jim Crow's death.
He was a remarkable man, probably the most brilliant I ever met, and he was kindly and modest to a fault.
A few years ago he mentioned to me that he had heard that the Lyric Opera had cancelled plans to perform Montemezzi's "L'Amore dei tre Re," and he was sorry to hear this as the opera is rarely performed in the USA and he was unfamiliar with it. The only recording of it (an excellent one) had been withdrawn from circulation years earlier.
I happened to chance upon a new copy of the opera still in its shrink-wrap. I bought it and left it in his mailbox at Genetics and some days later he told me how much he had been enjoying it, the more so because Anna Moffo was a favorite of his, and that he shared my view that it was unjustly neglected in the USA.
He will be greatly missed.