The readers of this journal may well be aware of Professor Crow’s scientific achievements and his role as the editor of Perspectives. In addition, for many thousands of students at the University of Wisconsin over many generations, James F. Crow was one of the most memorable teachers at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. What is less known is his major role in public service where he served as chair of many important committees for the National Academy of Sciences, the National Institutes of Health, the National Institutes of Justice as well as various international programs. In all of these efforts, Professor Crow has left a lasting impact.
I have been asked to discuss one aspect, that of public service, of James F. Crow’s professional career. His contributions have been most conspicuous at the national and international levels, but Jim has also performed real public service locally as well in the Madison, Wisconsin, community.
Jim’s public service is probably one of the lesser appreciated facets of his life, at least for those who know of Jim principally through his academic record. Let me state, as others in this series will also, that Jim continues to be a masterful teacher and world-renowned population geneticist and evolutionist. In addition to his scholarly work, he was for many years a university administrator; a long-time chair of the Genetics and Medical Genetics departments as well as acting Dean of the Medical School (the latter, a significant accomplishment for anyone and especially for someone who does not hold a medical degree). For 63 years and counting, he has continued to give the University of Wisconsin-Madison its money’s worth (8 hr a day, often twice a day). At 95 years of age, Jim is in his office almost daily and plays an active role in the campus community.
Beginning in the early 1950s, and extending to the present, there has been great public concern regarding the health effects of high-energy radiation. In the 1950s, it involved the fear of nuclear war and the dangers of radioactive fallout from atomic weapons testing. Today it is the Japanese nuclear power disaster at Fukashima and the resulting exposure of the local population. On the basis of extensive animal and plant genetic studies that began in the 1920s (but including no human genetic studies until much later), the prevailing view has been that there is no safe dose of radiation, that is, that new and deleterious mutations are induced linearly with increasing doses of radiation with no evidence of a threshold below which no effects are produced. Moreover, the evidence is that the effect of radiation is cumulative over the reproductive life span of the individual.
In the early 50s, however, in contrast to this view of geneticists on radiation’s mutational effects, the prevailing view in medical circles concerning cancer was that radiation did not induce cancer except at reasonably high doses; in effect, the medical community believed that for cancer induction, there is a threshold effect for radiation. Nevertheless, there was dissent from geneticists on this conclusion. In particular, E. B. Lewis, a Drosophila geneticist (who, in 1995, would win a Nobel Prize for his work in developmental genetics) and a friend of Jim’s, presented data that he argued showed that leukemia was induced in a linear dose response fashion and concluded that cancer was the result of somatic mutation (Lewis 1957). This was and to some still is a controversial view. I will return to the discussion of radiation-induced cancer in a later section.
Following World War II and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) convened six committees to address the issue of the health effects of ionizing radiation. This included a Genetics Committee composed of the most illustrious geneticists in the country: Herman J. Muller, Alfred Sturtevant, Sewall Wright, George Beadle, and James F. Crow to name just a few. Their task was to develop a rational basis for estimating the risk to a population from exposure to low doses of radiation. Their initial pioneering report published in 1956 was The Biological Effects of Atomic Radiation (BEAR Committee 1956). In the creation of this report, Jim played an important role as an adjudicator between Sewall Wright and H. J. Muller who had very different ideas as to how to quantify the population risk of genetic harm. Nevertheless, substantial agreement was reached, and the committee introduced the concept of the “doubling dose,” namely an estimate of the dose range that might double the genetic disorders relative to that expected in the absence of exposure. This approach was subsequently fine-tuned and used by all subsequent national and international committees responsible for human genetic risk estimates. The committee continued its work with Jim becoming chair of the BEAR genetics section from 1960 to 1963. [The original chair was Warren Weaver, a mathematician at The Rockefeller Foundation, whose wisdom and leadership so impressed Jim that many years later he wrote a short paper about Weaver’s role, “Quarreling Geneticists and a Diplomat” (Crow 1995).]
In 1957, following the publication of the first report, the Congressional Joint Committee on Atomic Energy convened a special session in 1957 devoted to “The Nature of Radioactive Fallout and Its Effects on Man.” Members of the NAS BEAR genetics committee were the primary presenters. The concern expressed by these leading geneticists and others led eventually to both national and international cessation of above-ground testing of nuclear weapons in the 1960s and influenced the drafting of regulation of other kinds of environmental mutagens and carcinogens. Also, in 1957 the first United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation was convened and Jim again served in the genetics section.
From 1969 to 1972, the NAS convened the second review committee on radiation effects, this one on The Effects on Populations of Exposure to Low Levels of Ionizing Radiation [Committee on the Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation (BEIR), National Research Council 1972], and Jim was again called upon to chair the genetics section. I was a member of this group and Jim taught me, by example, how a good chairperson works. He listened carefully to all members and mediated the sometimes fractious disputes that arose. As I recall, Jim also wrote, in his typically lucid fashion, most of the final report while encouraging and receiving key inputs from the members. This report introduced all the newer pertinent research data, such as the influence of cumulative dose and dose rate on mutational response in mouse germ cells, which served as a surrogate for human germ-line cells and provided a more accurate basis for estimating genetic risk at low doses. Refinements in population genetics theory were used, particularly the concept of the “mutational component” as a measure of the impact of new mutations, which was first developed by Jim and has been used in all subsequent national and international reports (Crow and Denniston 1981).
Jim’s service to science at the national level continued far beyond his service on the radiation committees. From 1971 to 1973, he was a member of the Advisory Committee to the Director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). (Once when Jim and I were in Washington together, he invited me to join him for dinner with a friend of his. They discussed issues of the NIH program for much of the evening. Only later did I learn that this friend was the director himself.) Between 1959 and 1988 he chaired a number of genetic study sections and training grant committees of the NIH.
In 1975, the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission, a program initiated by President Truman in 1946 to study the effects on the health of Japanese survivors of the atomic bombings, was transformed into a joint U.S.- and Japanese-financed program with the new title, “The Radiation Effects Research Foundation” (RERF). Jim was asked by the president of the NAS to chair the Scientific Advisory Committee to the new organization, whose membership included experts in all aspects of health effects analysis. The Crow Committee Report followed after an intensive 9-day visit with the RERF scientific and administrative staff in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Among the many recommendations for research programs that Jim’s committee proposed, many are still in effect today. One of Jim’s suggestions was that RERF begin, as soon as feasible, biochemical genetics studies on the families of the survivors. The data are from a total of 1000 families, including a mother, father, and at least one child (born after May 1946) whose DNA has been permanently stored. The collection includes 500 couples (of whom at least one had received a high dose) and 500 couples (both unexposed) for comparison. Study of this material awaits adequate financial support to be carried out but has the possibility of providing the most important results yet for human genetic effects. Jim remained as chair of this committee until 1983 and conducted annual reviews of the program.
Perhaps the most important recommendation of the Crow committee was the strong support that it gave to maintaining the very young cancer epidemiology program. This has turned out to be the most important RERF research bearing on radiation health risks to the atomic bomb survivors .The program has followed over 100,000 survivors throughout their lives (40% of the survivors are alive today). The most recent refinements in gamma and neutron dose estimates have been developed and applied to >90% of the survivors. Recent solid cancer incidence studies have clearly demonstrated a statistically significant linear dose response from a high dose in the range of 200 rem1 to low doses in the range of 0–15 rem (Preston et al. 2007). Similar results are found for solid cancer mortality. For comparison, the average annual dose of radiation from both natural and artificial sources (including medical radiation diagnostic procedures) to the U.S. population is 0.6 rem (Mettler et al. 2008). Thus while the issue of linearity in radiation dose response may still remain controversial, linearity continues to extend to lower doses as the number of cancer cases continues to increase. Moreover, it was found that the younger the individuals at the time of exposure, the higher the relative risk, with those <20 years of age at the time of the atomic bombings now making up the majority of the survivors.
The radiation genetics work undoubtedly spurred interest in chemically induced mutational damage. In 1969, during a meeting of the Genetics Society of America held in Madison, Wisconsin, a small number of geneticists met at Jim’s home to discuss this subject. Spearheaded by Alexander Hollaender (the director of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory Biology Division), the group hatched the Environmental Mutagen Society (EMS) to address the health effects associated with the exposure of the population to literally thousands of untested chemicals. There are now EMS programs in Europe, Asia, Egypt, and Central America; an International Commission for the Protection Against Mutagens and Carcinogens; and several government agencies involved in screening, such as the National Institute of Environmental Health Science and the Food and Drug Administration. In addition, there are now scientific journals, Mutation Research and Environmental and Molecular Mutagenesis, involved in evaluating the risk of such chemicals from the standpoint of genetic, developmental, and carcinogenic effects.
In 1979, the NAS again asked Jim to chair a new committee on chemical environmental mutagens. This was a 12-member committee and its task was to look at the diverse test systems that might best be used to assess potential damage to human reproductive cells and then how to estimate possible impact to future generations. In a sense, this was similar to the original BEAR committee charge except that it dealt with chemicals. The report was published as Identifying and Estimating the Genetic Impact of Chemical Environmental Mutagens (Committee on Chemical Environmental Mutagens 1982). The detection of potential carcinogens is considerably simplified by first screening for their related activity as mutagens by simple and rapid genetic tests (see, e.g., an independent study that assessed different test systems (National Academy of Science report, 1983).
Other NAS committees on which Jim served were The Committee on Nuclear and Alternative Energy Systems, as chair of the Risk/Impact Panel (1977–1982); as chair for the Committee for Scholarly Communication with the People’s Republic of China, Science and Engineering Committee (1983–1985); chair of the Committee on DNA Technology in Forensic Science (1994–1996). It would seem obvious that when the NAS wanted an exemplary report lucidly written and completed on time, it always called on Jim to chair it!
In addition, Jim served as vice chair on an important committee of the National Institute of Justice, namely, the National Commission on the Future of DNA Testing. He was also chair of the Research and Development Working Group of the Commission (1998–2000). Jim has had a life-long interest in forensics and was able to explain DNA and genetics to prosecutors, defense counsel, and judges and to help keep the diverse groups together and talking. According to my wife, Chief Justice Shirley S. Abrahamson of the Wisconsin Supreme Court, the Chair of the Commission, “his ability to teach, to listen and to think ‘outside the box’ made him a respected leader in the group.” The report of the working group was published in 2000.
Jim also served on the Department of Energy’s Health and Environmental Research Advisory Committee (1985–1988) and was on the Board of Scientific Overseers for the Jackson Laboratory, Bar Harbor, Maine, from 1961 to 1988.
Jim’s public service activities, however, have not just been at the national and international levels. He has also been active locally. In the Madison community, he spent considerable time combating (what is ironically, in terms of this account, and entirely coincidentally named) “Jim Crowism,” the multi-level segregation of African Americans that was initiated in the aftermath of the Civil War in the 1860s and only finally outlawed in 1964–1965. Jim served as faculty advisor to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in the late 1940s into the 1950s. Those efforts were ultimately rewarded when the Madison (WI) City Council passed an open housing ordinance in the early 1960s.
Let me end this account, however, with some notes on the more personal side of things. In addition to his many scientific activities and public service tasks, Jim has been active in the world of music. Early in his life, he was unsure about whether he should follow music as a career or science; he opted to be deeply involved in both. Jim played viola in the Madison Symphony Orchestra from 1949 to 1994. He was elected president of the Madison Civic Music Association from 1973 to 1974 and president of the Madison Symphony Orchestra from 1984 to 1986. In recent years, he has taken on the job of raising funds to sustain the famous Pro Arte String Quartet that resides in Madison. For his many services to the Madison music community, Jim was honored in 2008 by a gala dinner at the Madison Opera performance of “Madama Butterfly.”
I end with my favorite anecdote about Jim. He was born on January 18, 1916, and turned 95 years young this past January, so it might seem unusual to learn that we celebrated his 70th birthday in 1961, when he was only 45. Let me explain. In December 1960, we were in New York for the American Association for the Advancement of Science meetings and to celebrate the 70th birthday of H. J. Muller, who had received the Nobel Prize in 1946 for demonstrating that radiation produced mutations. We took the celebration as an important milestone in genetics, since Muller had been my major professor and Jim’s major professor’s major professor. I would add that Jim and most leading geneticists thought Muller was the greatest geneticist of the first half of the 20th century. At the birthday banquet, in the midst of tributes made by his colleagues, Muller collapsed, striking fear into the hearts of all present. When he revived and was being taken to the hospital, Jim remarked to me quietly that he would rather celebrate his 70th birthday when he was still young enough to enjoy it. When we returned to Madison, I informed the members of the fly lab of Jim’s request, and for the next several weeks we secretly and feverishly planned a 70th surprise party, with songs and skits and numerous telegrams (Western Union Telegrams still existed in 1961) from both living and dead scientists, including Gregor Mendel, recognizing Jim’s both major and relatively minor contributions to the field. (Full disclosure: the long-deceased were given some help in composing their tributes by the party organizers.) Such articles as Jim’s note on the usefulness of adding benzyl benzoate to Drosophila culture media to prevent mite infestation was the topic of one of the telegrams; another dealt with a genetic controversy that had been running between Jim and Theodosius Dobzhansky at the time, this latter contribution in poetic form. At Jim’s 90th party (celebrated when Jim actually turned 90), I related this event and he later sent me copies of all the telegrams he had received 45 years before.
I thank Millard Susman for his suggestions and editing advice and also my wife Shirley for her information and advice. I am pleased to single out the editor of Perspectives, Adam Wilkins, whose editorial skills and suggestions have significantly improved this presentation honoring a wonderful friend, mentor, and colleague.
↵1 In the text I have used the dosage term “rem,” which is the biologically effective dose but which has been superceded by the Sievert (Sv): 1 Sv = 100 rem. The rad is the physically adsorbed dose usually equivalent to the rem when dealing with X or gamma rays, and 100 rad =1 Gray (Gy). For some of us (those of a certain age), it is conceptually simpler to continue to use the rem.
- Copyright © 2012 by the Genetics Society of America