Interesting Reviewers
James F. Crow

Anecdotal, Historical and Critical Commentaries on Genetics

Edited by James F. Crow and William F. Dove

FOR 5 years, from 1952 to 1956, R. Alexander Brink was managing editor of Genetics and I was associate editor. The journal was then in its fourth decade. Of course, times were different, strikingly different. The journal appeared six times per year, and the annual total of pages was ∼700, increasing to 1000 during the 5-year period. The yearly subscription rate was $6.00; it, too, increased during this time, to $8.00. The journal made ends meet, but true to its nonprofit status it produced little excess. We had one part-time assistant, but Alex and I did most of the editing and proofreading and handled numerous troublesome details.

Much of the success of any journal, then and now, depends on the quality of its reviewers. Genetics had good ones, often leaders in the field. A few of the reviews stand out in memory. Some informed reviewers made truly great improvements in the manuscripts; others offered new insights that led to interesting consequences.

As far as I can ascertain, the editorial correspondence from that period is lost, so I am writing this from memory. Naturally, my recollections of events half a century ago are fallible, but I think I remember the essence. The identity of reviewers was confidential, so some of what follows is a breach of that confidence. I do not know whether there is a statute of limitations, but it seems reasonable that after half a century some revelations are permissible. I have, however, not mentioned the authors in most cases.

Sewall Wright was a particularly thorough reviewer. When he received a manuscript for review, he typically dropped other activities and went over the copy in great detail. Usually this involved his redoing all the calculations and reanalyzing the data. Alex and I were convinced that he was spending too much time on other people's data, at the price of not getting his own more important work done. For that reason, we employed him sparingly, only where his unique insights were essential.

A review that stands out in my mind involved a study of quantitative traits in rodents. As usual, Wright reanalyzed all the data. He suggested a large number of changes, the most significant of which was to suggest a scale transformation of the data, which not only greatly simplified the interpretation, but also led to the opposite conclusion. The author made almost all of the suggested alterations and obligingly reversed the conclusion.

On another occasion, Wright was a reviewer of a manuscript by Alan Robertson (1952). In this case, the situation was the other way around: the reviewer learned from the author. The conventional wisdom was that within-population variance always decreases with inbreeding, which is true much of the time. Robertson, however, showed that with a recessive allele the variance actually increases, and with a rare recessive the increase can be very large, as the recessive genotype frequency changes from q2 to ∼Fq, where q is the recessive allele frequency and F is Wright's inbreeding coefficient. It now seems self-evident that this leads to an increase of variance, but that was not common currency in 1952. I think it may even have come as a surprise to Wright. In any event, this started him on a new round of thinking. Soon after, he published a more general treatment (Wright 1952).

A second manuscript in which a reviewer was particularly helpful concerned the effect of Minute mutations on somatic crossing over in Drosophila. The results were mostly consistent in showing that crossover enhancement was greatest in the same arm as the Minute mutation. But there was one troublesome exception. Happily, I had solicited a review from that Drosophila virtuoso, Ed Novitski. I did not know at the time whether he actually carried out some experiments or got the information in other ways; in any case, he took a long time. When we finally got the review, Novitski pointed out that the troublesome exception was caused by the mislocation of the Minute mutation. It should have been mapped on the other side of the centromere. Now the manuscript showed crossover enhancement to be greatest on the same arm as the mutation. The findings were now consistent, and the manuscript was greatly improved, to everyone's delight.

The third manuscript involved neutron radiation. In this case, the astute reviewer, Aaron Novick, knew enough about the physics in the author's laboratory to be aware of gamma contamination in the neutron source and to adjust the dosimetry accordingly. The data now fitted the expectations much more closely and the manuscript was much improved. The author was both chagrined not to notice this error and thankful for the reviewer's insight.

My next example is of a different sort. It involves a famous article, Visconti and Delbrück (1953). They worked out a wonderfully detailed theory of recombination in phage particles, involving multiple rounds of mating inside the bacterium. The manuscript was particularly difficult and I asked Kim Atwood, whose intelligence I greatly admired, to review it. He kept the manuscript an inordinately long time, during which Max Delbrück became increasingly impatient. Finally the review came, and it was a masterpiece. Kim clearly understood the work, followed it in great detail, and made a number of suggestions, which I believe were largely ignored. I do not know whether or not Delbrück was pleased with the review. In any case, he asked me to thank Sewall Wright for such a careful review. He had assumed that only Wright would understand the calculations. I cannot remember whether we told Wright, but I do remember that nobody told Max.

My fifth example involves the well-known mutual dislike between Sturtevant and Dobzhansky (e.g., Novitski 2005). Nevertheless, in all my contacts with both men over the years, and these were extensive, I never heard either of them say anything derogatory about the other, although both of them were aware that I knew of the rift.

But on one occasion Sturtevant did make his feelings known, although with characteristic subtlety. Genetics had received two manuscripts. One was by a young cytogeneticist and the other by Dobzhansky. Sturtevant reviewed both. His reply was essentially as follows: The first paper is careful work by a serious, deserving young scientist, but it does not quite measure up to Genetics standards. I say, reject with regret. The Dobzhansky paper must surely be published. But it is too long for its content and generally overstated. I say, accept with regret.

My next example is the most poignant and distressful to me. We had received a manuscript from Henry Bennett (1954). It concerned random mating with linkage in tetrasomics and hexasomics. The methods involved some fairly sophisticated mathematics. We sent the manuscript to Hilda Geiringer for review. She was very slow in answering and I wrote her several times, becoming more and more insistent. Finally, she replied, saying that she simply could not give the manuscript the careful attention that it deserved. The reason was that her husband, the great mathematician Richard von Mises, was very ill. It turned out to be his final illness. Needless to say, I deeply regretted the strong tone of my letters.

My final example again involves Wright as reviewer. In 1953 the Genetics Society of America met in Wisconsin and a young Japanese mathematical geneticist was in attendance. He had with him a manuscript (Kimura 1954) that he had written during the long sea voyage across the Pacific. He showed that, even in an infinite population, random fluctuation of selection intensities can mimic the effect of random allele-frequency drift in a finite population. Kimura's diffusion equation was bewilderingly complex, but he found a transformation that converted it into the simple equation for heat conduction, whose solution is well known and familiar to every physics student.

We gave the manuscript to Wright to review. Wright was not given to verbal effusion, but his review was closer to unequivocal praise than any that he had done earlier. It was the beginning of Wright's life-long admiration of Kimura's work; and Kimura's first Genetics reviewer was his idol, Sewall Wright. Soon after, they both moved to Wisconsin, to the delight of all three of us.

I'll end by expressing a fond hope. Just possibly the missing editorial correspondence is not permanently lost and will turn up. I would very much like to see it again, to refresh and perhaps correct my memories of long ago.