The J. F. Crow Institute for the Study of Evolution draws its name from the late James F. Crow. Prof. Crow was an internationally recognized leader in the science of population genetics, which forms an essential foundation for modern evolutionary theory. Crow arrived at the University of Wisconsin–Madison as a faculty member in 1948 and remained an active member of our community for 64 years until his death in 2012.
Born in 1916 in Collegeville, Pennsylvania, James Crow spent most of his childhood in Kansas, where his father joined the biology faculty at Friends University. Crow did his undergraduate work at Friends, studying biology and chemistry, and completed his PhD at the University of Texas at Austin in 1941. He taught at Dartmouth College until he moved to UW-Madison in 1948.
In his UW-Madison laboratory, Crow worked on both mathematical and experimental problems in genetics. He bred lines of Drosophila fruit flies, designing experiments to understand mutation and its effects upon survival and reproduction. He studied the effects of chemical pesticides upon insects and the ways that insect populations evolved resistance to DDT. His laboratory work helped formulate answers to some theoretical questions in evolutionary biology, especially the extent of “hidden” genetic variation in populations and the way that random processes matter to evolution over time.
During the 1950s, Crow helped to build a stronger statistical understanding of the incidence of mutation in humans. Crow’s many research papers in this area were of great value in assessing how human health is affected by natural and artificial radiation in the environment. This was an urgent scientific question, as the use and widespread testing of nuclear weapons was introducing a substantial amount of ionizing radiation into the biosphere. Crow wrote on the effects of radiation and radioactive fallout both for other scientists and for the broader public.
Crow remained active in research for more than seven decades. As his career matured in the 1980s and 1990s, he wrote influential papers on classic evolutionary problems, such as the measurement of natural selection, the conditions for selection on polygenic traits, and the ways that population structure influences evolution. He also wrote historical perspectives on the field of genetics, helping to connect later generations with the founders of the discipline. His scientific achievements led his peers to elect him to the National Academy of Sciences, the Japan Academy, and the Royal Society of London. He also served terms as President of both the Genetics Society of America and the American Society of Human Genetics.
Crow’s contributions to public service are among the most notable aspects of his long career. In this, Crow represented the Wisconsin Idea, the tradition observed at the University of Wisconsin–Madison that our research and teaching should serve the public of Wisconsin and the world beyond the borders of our state.
The National Academy of Sciences selected Crow in 1956 as part of a committee of experts on the health effects of radiation, and he later chaired this and other committees on the same topic. In this setting and in other leadership roles, Crow distinguished himself by showing an ability to forge consensus among scientists who held very different backgrounds and ideas. From 1975–1983, Crow chaired the scientific advisory committee of the U.S.-Japan Radiation Effects Research Foundation, which organized crucial epidemiological work on radiation and cancer in tens of thousands of survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. In 1979, he chaired a National Academy of Sciences committee on the effects of chemical mutagens in our human environments. During the late 1990s, as DNA technology began to show promise in forensic identification, Crow served as vice chair of the National Commission on the Future of DNA Testing for the National Institute of Justice.
Human genetics and DNA technology are areas of science with important social dimensions. From radiation and carcinogenic chemicals to DNA testing, Crow’s public service and writings for nonspecialists addressed topics that could be controversial. One of the most prominent topics was the question of whether genetic differences between human groups might be important to human behavior. This topic came to the fore during the 1960s, as scientists like William Shockley and Arthur Jensen argued that human genetic differences, including between racial groups, might be important contributors to social outcomes. In 1968, the National Academy of Sciences responded to these calls with a clear statement, written in part by Crow, that emphasized the scientific reality that any genetic influences on complex traits like behavior were far from being understood. At the same time, the report noted, environment and culture have undeniable influences on human behavior. Crow’s published response to a controversial paper by Jensen in 1969, and especially excerpts regarding race and ability from an essay written in 2002, became the subject of scrutiny and dialogue within our Institute and broader community beginning in 2021, as further detailed on this page.
Teaching and mentorship
As a faculty member at UW–Madison, Crow served as the advisor or mentor for more than 50 PhD students and postdoctoral researchers. Among this group were some of the most distinguished evolutionary and population geneticists of the last 70 years.
Crow was a gifted teacher whose courses in introductory genetics and population genetics are remembered by many former students as the best in their college careers. His students remember him as insightful and clear in his lectures, and invariably kind. His undergraduate genetics lecture notes became a book, Genetics Notes, which was published in eight editions from 1951 to 1987. With his former student, Motoo Kimura, Crow wrote An Introduction to Population Genetics Theory, an advanced text that was the standard for the field for years.
In addition to his classroom teaching and research mentoring, Crow played active roles in the broader UW-Madison community. From shortly after his arrival at UW-Madison into the early 1950s, Crow was the faculty advisor for the campus chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He began to play viola in the Madison Symphony Orchestra in 1949, he was president of this organization from 1984 to 1986, and he maintained a large role in the Madison music community for the remainder of his life.
No one individual could encompass the diversity of evolutionary biology on our campus. Our faculty, staff, and students work on topics from molecules to microbes, organisms to populations. However, all of us aim to be or to become the best possible mentors for the next generation of evolutionary biologists. In our work, we aspire to make a difference to the state of Wisconsin and the broader global community.
In these dimensions, Professor James F. Crow was a valued member of our community throughout his life. At the time of the founding of the Institute for the Study of Evolution at UW–Madison in 2010, the organizing committee chose to honor Crow’s contributions and role by giving his name to the new Institute, and this name was ratified by the community as part of the founding bylaws.
This introduction to Crow’s life and career at UW-Madison draws upon many sources. Especially important are the series of appreciations written by his colleagues for his 95th birthday, including those by Daniel Hartl, Seymour Abrahamson, Millard Susman, and Rayla Greenberg Temin. These were published in the journal Genetics in 2012.