James F. Crow, 1916­ – 2012

James Franklin Crow, 95, Madison, Wis., died of congestive heart failure Jan. 4, 2012, at Capitol Lakes Retirement Community. The world-renowned evolutionary biologist and population geneticist was a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor for 48 years and a Lifetime Member of the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

Crow was born Jan. 18, 1916, in Phoenixville, Pa. His father was a biology teacher at Ursinus College, 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 UW-Madison, where he stayed until the end of his career.

He met his future wife, Ann Crockett Crow, at the University of Texas, where he played viola and she played clarinet in the student orchestra. She died in 2001. He played viola with the Madison Symphony Orchestra for many years. He performed at a concert to celebrate his 90th birthday.

He was a Fellow of the Royal Society of London and the Japan Academy, a member of the American Philosophical Society, the World Academy of Art and Science, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the National Academy of Medicine and the National Academy of Sciences, where he has chaired several committees, including one to study forensic uses of DNA fingerprinting. That committee’s report helped legitimize use of DNA testing in court.

“When the National Academy of Sciences wanted an exemplary report lucidly written and completed on time, it always called on Jim to chair it,” said UW colleague Seymour Abrahamson in the journal Genetics, a comment reported in The New York Times’ Jan. 10 story on Crow’s legacy. Abrahamson is married to Wisconsin Supreme Court Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson.

His most recent honor was the establishment in 2009 of the James F. Crow Institute for the Study of Evolution at UW-Madison. When Crow was an honored speaker at FFRF’s annual national convention in 2010 in Madison, he joked about that use of his name. “I take a great deal of pride in this, of course. But this usually happens after you’re dead. And I’m refusing to take the hint.”

He told the convention audience that he believed neither in gods, devils nor “intelligent design.” In closing he said:

“I want to say a little bit about evolution and religious belief. My main personal reason for nonbelief is: Why would an all-powerful and especially benevolent creator permit so much sin and suffering? Most evolutionists are nonbelievers, but they all aren’t. My favorite quotation on this subject, and often he is very quotable, is from Bertrand Russell. He was asked one time, ‘Bertie, suppose that you’re totally wrong about this? Suppose you die and there really is a God and you’re taken up to the Pearly Gates, what would you say?’ Russell answered instantly, ‘I would say, “God, why didn’t you give us better evidence?” ’

“Well, let me finally end this tirade, this screed, by asking do you need to be a nonbeliever to study evolution? Of course not! There are religious people who study evolution. I don’t think there’s anyone among them, though, who takes the Old Testament literally. For myself, I believe you don’t have to be a nonbeliever to be an evolutionist, but I think it helps.”

Another UW colleague, Professor Emeritus James Coors, who is an FFRF Executive Council member, paid tribute to Crow in introducing him to the convention. Coors noted his colleague’s many professional achievements that broke new scientific ground, then spoke to Crow’s humanity, calling him “a man who lights up every room with his smile.”

“Dr. Crow was a downtown Madison fixture who still went to the university daily,” said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “He remained vibrant, tuned in and productive till the end.”

“We are fortunate to have known him and are honored by his interest in the Foundation,” added Co-President Dan Barker.

Survivors include a son, Franklin; two daughters, Laura Crow and Catherine Rasmussen; six grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

Photo by Brent Nicastro.

Freedom From Religion Foundation