James F. Crow and the Art of Teaching and Mentoring

By Hartl, Daniel L. | Genetics, December 2011 | Go to article overview

James F. Crow and the Art of Teaching and Mentoring


Hartl, Daniel L., Genetics


ABSTRACT To honor James F. Crow on the occasion of his 95th birthday, GENETICS has commissioned a series of Perspectives and Reviews. For GENETICS to publish the honorifics is fitting, as from their birth Crow and GENETICS have been paired. Crow was scheduled to be born in January 1916, the same month that the first issue of GENETICS was scheduled to appear, and in the many years that Crow has made major contributions to the conceptual foundations of modern genetics, GENETICS has chronicled his and other major advances in the field. The commissioned Perspectives and Reviews summarize and celebrate Professor Crow's contributions as a research scientist, administrator, colleague, community supporter, international leader, teacher, and mentor. In science, Professor Crow was the international leader of his generation in the application of genetics to populations of organisms and in uncovering the role of genetics in health and disease. In education, he was a superb undergraduate teacher whose inspiration changed the career paths of many students. His teaching skills are legendary, his lectures urbane and witty, rigorous and clear. He was also an extraordinary mentor to numerous graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, many of whom went on to establish successful careers of their own. In public service, Professor Crow served in key administrative positions at the University of Wisconsin, participated as a member of numerous national and international committees, and served as president of both the Genetics Society of America and the American Society for Human Genetics. This Perspective examines Professor Crow as teacher and mentor through the eyes and experiences of one student who was enrolled in his genetics course as an undergraduate and who later studied with him as a graduate student.

THIS essay is one of a planned series of Perspectives and Reviews honoring James F. Crow on the occasion of his 95th birthday. Professor Crow was born in Phoenixville near Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, in January 1916, the same month in which the first issue of a new journal called GENETICS was scheduled to arrive. He relates with evident satisfaction that he himself arrived on time whereas the journal was a month or two late (Crow 2000). His father had worked his way through college as a newspaper carrier and house painter and eventually earned an M.S. degree from the University of Kansas studying with C. E. McClung, discoverer of the X chromosome (Crow 2005). The elder Crow taught biology at Ursinus College in Collegeville, Pennsylvania, for a few years, but in 1918 accepted a position at Friends University in Wichita, Kansas, which allowed him to relocate his family so that he could take care of his parents (Crow 2005). The young James Crow attended public school, studied piano and violin, became interested in physics, chemistry, and biology, and eventually matriculated at Friends University and earned a B.A. degree in Biology and Chemistry (1937). He joined the graduate program at the University of Texas, hoping that H. J. Muller might return from his sojourn in the Soviet Union, but this never happened and Crow worked instead with J. T. Patterson and W. S. Stone on premating reproductive isolation in the Drosophila mulleri species group (Wagner and Crow 2001; Crow 2006). Crow received his Ph.D. in 1941 and in that same year married Ann Crockett.

In his 95 years, James F. Crow has become one of the most admired, beloved, and accomplished geneticists in the world. He is renowned as a research scientist, administrator, colleague, community supporter, international leader, teacher, and mentor. His achievements in these diverse occupations will be recounted in forthcoming issues of GENETICS by other authors. In this piece, I have been asked to profile him as a teacher and mentor, to give an account of his undergraduate course, and to relate as best I can what it was like to be a graduate student in his laboratory. "When I was in graduate school," Crow says, "I really expected to be a teacher" (Crow 2000)-and as teacher and mentor he shaped himself into a Jedi Master.

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