MADISON, WISC. – James F. Crow, a leader in the field of population genetics who helped shape public policy toward atomic radiation damage and the use of DNA in the courtroom, died last Wednesday at his home in Madison, Wis. He was 95.
The cause was congestive heart failure, his daughter Catherine Rasmussen said.
Population genetics uses mathematical and statistical methods to understand evolutionary change, and Dr. Crow was a leading exponent of the subject for more than half a century at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He was the author of two leading textbooks on the subject, one of them written with Motoo Kimura, a prominent Japanese geneticist and former student.
The methods of population genetics have emerged as the principal tool for exploring the genetic roots of disease and for interpreting the torrent of data now flowing out of the human genome project, the effort to determine the complete sequence of DNA in human chromosomes.
Beyond the campus Dr. Crow was an influential figure in addressing major issues of genetics and shaping public policy toward them.
“He was the real organizer of population genetics in the United States,” said Will Provine, a historian of biology at Cornell University.
Dr. Crow 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.
Until 1972 he led the academy’s effort to provide genetic advice to the government on vexing issues like the above-ground testing of nuclear weapons and the effects of low levels of ionizing radiation.
The academy’s concern about above-ground nuclear explosions was a significant factor in the eventual ban on such tests by the United States and other countries.
The damaging effects of radiation fit with Dr. Crow’s academic interest in mutational load — that is, the accumulation of changes to DNA, most of which are deleterious. In 1979 he was chairman of an academy committee on the mutational effect of environmental chemicals.
Dr. Crow led still another academy committee on the forensic use of DNA. Its reports in the 1990s helped legitimize the use of DNA testing by the courts.
“When the National Academy of Sciences wanted an exemplary report lucidly written and completed on time, it always called on Jim to chair it,” Seymour Abrahamson, a colleague of his at Wisconsin, wrote in this month’s issue of the journal Genetics.
Dr. Crow’s long career traced the history of population genetics. He was well acquainted with two of its three founders, R. A. Fisher and J. B. S. Haldane, and he invited the third, Sewall Wright, to his department at Wisconsin after Dr. Wright retired from the University of Chicago. Dr. Crow built the department into a major force in the field.
The importance of population genetics’ methods was for many years not so apparent. Daniel L. Hartl, a geneticist at Harvard, wrote in a recent article that as a graduate student he had once asked Dr. Crow if he could join his lab. “Yes, Dan,” Dr. Crow replied, “provided you understand that population genetics is a recondite field that will never be of great interest except to a small group of specialists.”
Dr. Hartl remembered the exchange, he wrote, “because afterward I hurried to look up ‘recondite’ in the dictionary.”
James Franklin Crow was born on Jan. 18, 1916, in Phoenixville, Pa., outside Philadelphia. His father was a biology teacher at Ursinus College in Collegeville, Pa., then moved to Friends University in Wichita, Kan., where James grew up. He received a bachelor’s degree from Friends and did graduate studies at the University of Texas, where he earned a Ph.D. in genetics in 1941. After seven years at Dartmouth College, he moved to the University of Wisconsin, where he remained for the rest of his life.
Genetics changed so vastly during this period, notably with the discovery of the structure of DNA in 1953, that when anxious students asked Dr. Crow what would be in the exams, he would tell them that the questions were the same every year but that the answers were different.
Dr. Crow was interested in the power of genetics to reverse genetic disease, and he believed that genetics would continue to delineate differences between human groups. But he regarded as ill-advised the trend among anthropologists and geneticists to play down the existence of human races.
“It is important for society to do a better job than it now does in accepting differences as a fact of life,” he wrote in 2002 in Daedalus, the journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. The differences between Asians, Africans and Caucasians “are small — but they are real,” he wrote, adding, “I hope that differences will be welcomed, rather than accepted grudgingly.”
Dr. Crow was a faculty adviser to the N.A.A.C.P. in the 1940s and ’50s.
A musician, he considered pursuing a career in music for a time. Still, he continued to play the viola in the Madison Symphony Orchestra from 1949 to 1994.
He had also played in the student orchestra at the University of Texas while studying for his doctorate there. It was through the close proximity of the viola and clarinet sections that he met his future wife, Ann Crockett, a clarinetist. She died in 2001.
He is survived by a son, Franklin; two daughters, Laura Crow and Catherine Rasmussen; six grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.