Francis Albert Eley Crew (1886-1973)

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Francis Albert Eley Crew (1886-1973), oil painting by Alfred Edward Borthwick, University of Edinburgh Art Collection (EU0531)

Francis Albert Eley Crew was born on 02 March 1886 at Tipton, Staffordshire, and attended the King Edward VI High School, Edgbaston. As a schoolboy, Crew developed a fascination with breeding bantams, winning prizes in many major poultry shows.

Deciding eventually upon a career in medicine, Crew initially attended Mason College, Birmingham, but at his father's behest went on to enter the University of Edinburgh Medical School. As an undergraduate, Crew's interest in biology and the emerging science of genetics was awakened by attending the lectures of three key individuals: Arthur Duckinfield Darbishire (1879-1915), lecturer in genetics, reproductive physiologist Francis Hugh Adam Marshall (1878-1949) and Sir Edward Albert Sharpey Schafer (1850-1935), endocrinologist and professor of physiology.

After graduating MB ChB in 1912, Crew and his wife set up a medical practice in North Devon. Here Crew rediscovered his childhood interest for breeding bantams and was also commissioned as 2nd Lieutenant in the 6th Battalion, the Devonshire Regiment. With the outbreak of World War I, Crew was allotted to the 2nd/6th Battalion and soon reached the rank of Major, serving in India and France. At the end of the war he returned to Edinburgh as an assistant in the natural history department. Crew supplemented his income by demonstrating to medical students in the department of physiology, where he became closely acquainted with Edward Sharpey Schafer. In 1920, Schafer approached Crew about taking up the directorship of the new animal breeding research station which had been planned for Edinburgh for some years. The other likely candidates being unavailable (A.D. Darbishire having died in 1915 and F.H.A Marshall having gone to Cambridge), Crew accepted and in 1921 the Department of Research in Animal Breeding was established. Crew's first substantial publication appeared in the Journal of Genetics in the same year, and over the next few years he was to contribute greatly to the fields of intersexuality and sex transformations in mammals and birds, particularly the domestic fowl. Throughout his career in genetics Crew maintained strong contacts with poultry breeders, farmers and bird fanciers, and this meant that specimens of mammals and birds exhibiting sexual abnormalities of one sort or another, were more easily obtainable to him. Crew received his DSc in 1921 with a thesis on the sex-determination in the Anura, and an MD in the same year. He gained his PhD in 1923.

Despite humble beginnings in a disused University building in High School Yards, a handful of experimental animals and little financial support, Crew was very soon able to attract both funding and researchers. In 1924 the Institute moved to the King's Buildings site, initially inhabiting rooms in the Chemistry Department. A couple of years later, the department received a grant of £30,000 from the International Education Board (a subsidiary of the Rockefeller Foundation), which was supplemented by further funds from various bodies and individuals, allowing for the endowment of the Buchanan Chair of Animal Genetics (to which Crew was duly appointed), and the provision of a new building and equipment. In 1930, the Institute of Animal Genetics building on the King's Buildings site opened publicly and over the next few years it grew into the premier genetics research institute in Europe, and perhaps the world. Crew attracted a number of distinguished scientists to the Institute, including John Burdon Sanderson Haldane (1892-1964), Lancelot Hogben (1895-1975), and Julian Huxley (1887-1975). Dame Honor Fell studied under Crew as a postgraduate, and it was he who sent her to the Strangeways Laboratory, of which she later became director. The department also became home to the UK's only Pregnancy Diagnosis Laboratory, under John Michael Robson (1900-1982 and Bertold Paul Wiesner (1901-1972.

Financial depression during the 1930s meant that any plans for the Institute's development had to be put on hold, but the rise of fascism in Europe forced many scientists out of their native countries to find a new home at the Institute. These included: Hermann Joseph Muller (1890-1967), later Nobel Laureate, Charlotte Auerbach (1899-1994) and Guido Pontecorvo (1907-1999). Crew and Muller managed to assemble a group of some twelve postgraduate students to conduct research under them. In 1939 the prestigious International Congress of Genetics met in Edinburgh with Crew as President, yet this event was curtailed due to the outbreak of hostilities. After ensuring the safe departure of the foreign delegates, Crew joined up and was drafted to command a military hospital at Edinburgh Castle. After witnessing the number of highly qualified Polish medics and students in camps, Crew came up with the concept of founding a Polish School of Medicine in Edinburgh, which came into being in February 1941. By the time it closed in 1949, 228 Polish students had graduated MB ChB and 19 had gained an MD. For his role in founding the school, Crew was later granted the honour of the Order of Polonia Restituta by the President of Poland.

During the war Crew was appointed director of Medical Research at the War Office with rank of brigadier, undertaking the ambitious job of writing and part-editing the official Army Medical History of the War (HMSO). Yet he was never to return to the Institute of Animal Genetics. In 1944, feeling that he had lost touch with advances in genetics, Crew accepted the offer of the chair of Public Health and Social Medicine at the University of Edinburgh. During the ten years that Crew occupied the Chair, he was responsible for the University's taking over the dispensaries, for the creation of a Nursing Teaching Unit which was recognised by the World Health Organisation as the centre in Europe for advanced instruction.

Following his retirement in 1955, Crew was asked by the W.H.O to represent Preventative and Social Medicine advising the Egyptian authorities concerning the reform of the medical curriculum. His visit to Ein Sharma, Cairo, was to prove so successful that he was invited to back to organise a department and to train a young Egyptian lecturer to succeed him. Crew agreed, although his stay in Egypt ended in temporary incarceration and his abrupt ejection during the Suez crisis. Over the next few years, similar work took Crew to Rangoon and Bombay. His final assignment, in 1966-1967 was by the Ministry of Overseas Development to advise the director of the Central Family Planning Institute, New Delhi, who was planning to add a division of population genetics. At this time Crew also established the first medical genetics clinic in India, returning over land by bus, a journey which took three months. The last years of his life were spent in the Sussex countryside, where he returned to his lifelong hobby of breeding bantams, which he described as 'a very old-fashioned exercise in these days of molecular biology'.

Crew was elected as Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1922, being awarded the Keith Prize in 1937. He was founder and first editor of the British Journal of Social Medicine in 1921, and one of the founders of the Society for Experimental Biology (1923). Crew obtained an honorary DSc from Benares Hindu University (1937), LLD from Edinburgh (1958). He was a foreign member of the Czechoslovakian Academy of Agriculture, member of the American Genetic Association and an honorary member of the National Veterinary Medical Association, the Physiological Society of India and the Polish Society of Arts and Sciences Abroad.

He married his first wife, fellow medical graduate Helen Campbell Dykes, in 1913. Following her death in 1971, he married Margaret Withof-Keus, whom he had known since the Second World War when she was a junior officer in the Royal Army Medical Corps. F.A.E Crew died on May 26 1973. Crew's friend and colleague Lancelot Hogben said of him that 'he combined intellectual humility and scientific curiosity with authentic nobility as a man.'

Notable publications

Animal Genetics: an Introduction to the Science of Animal Breeding, (1925)

Organic Inheritance in Man, (1927)

Genetics of Sexuality in Animals, (1927)

Heredity, (1928)

The Genetics of the Budgerigar, with Rowena Lamy (1935)

Genetics in Relation to Clinical Medicine, (1947)

Measurements of the Public Health: essays on social Medicine, (1948)

Must Man Wage War?: biological aspects of war, (1952)

The Official Medicial History of the Second World War: the Army Medical Services. Vol. I: Administration, (ed) (1953)

The Official Medicial History of the Second World War: the Army Medical Services. Vol 2: Administration, (ed) (1955)

The Official Medicial History of the Second World War: the Army Medical Services. Vol 1: Campaigns, (ed) (1956)

The Official Medicial History of the Second World War: the Army Medical Services. Vol 2: Campaigns, (ed) (1957)

The Official Medicial History of the Second World War: the Army Medical Services. Vol 3: Campaigns, (ed) (1959)

The Official Medicial History of the Second World War: the Army Medical Services. Vol 4: Campaigns, (ed) (1962)

The Official Medicial History of the Second World War: the Army Medical Services. Vol 5: Campaigns, (ed) (1966)

The Foundations of Genetics, (1966)

Key events

  • 1921: Appointed Director, Department of Research in Animal Breeding
  • 1921: Appointed to Buchanan Chair of Animal Genetics
  • 1937-1939: Awarded Keith Prize, Royal Society of Edinburgh
  • 1942-1945: Appointed Director, Medical Research, War Office
  • 1944: Appointedto Chair of Public Health and Social Medicine
  • 1949-1955: Appointed Chairman, Board of Management, Edinburgh Central Group of Hospitals


  • Crew, F.A.E., unpublished autobiographical notes, Records of the Institute of Animal Genetics, EUA IN1/ACU/A1/4/2 (c.1968)
  • Deacon, Margaret, 'The *Institute of Animal Genetics at Edinburgh - the first twenty years', unpublished manuscript (c.1971)
  • Hogben, Lancelot, Francis Albert Eley Crew: Biographical Memoirs of the Royal Society, vol. 20, ( London, Royal Society, 1974)