Green Wright was born to Philip Green and Elizabeth Quincy
Sewall Wright, residents of Melrose Massachusetts, on December
21, 1889. The family moved three years later after Philip
accepted a teaching job at Lombard College, a Universalist
college in Galesburg, Illinois. The ancestry of the Wright
family could be traced through 16th century England to the
7th century reign of Charlemagne, and many of Sewall's ancestors
were distinguished educated and innovative individuals.
Wright would later profess a great interest in heredity;
in the example of his life, he certainly manifested the
genes of past success.
Wright and his brothers, Quincy and Theodore Paul, were
very gifted children. Although they did not initially attend
official schools, they were reading and writing at unusually
early ages. Sewall entered the "publishing" arena at the
age of seven with his pamphlet on various animals' physical
characteristics. Also, he was then able to extract cube
roots, to the disgust of the other children. The atmosphere
at the school was not conducive to learning, and Wright
had to avoid participation for fear of sparking the ire
of the other boys with his knowledge.
during his student days at Lombard College
From his youth, Wright was fascinated with math and mathematical
models. He would often waste afternoons playing with his mother's
balance in the kitchen, and she would in turn teach him arithmetical
methods. The Wright parents were fond of reading to their
children, and in the home a highly intellectual atmosphere
was continually fostered. Wright, however, did not want to
follow his father's suggestions to study poetry; he instead
was enthralled by nature. Wright attended Galesburg High School,
graduating in 1906 to enroll in Lombard College to concentrate
on mathematics and surveying.
At the College, Sewall Wright's interest in biology was
spurred by Professor Wilhelmine Entemann Key, one of the
first women to earn a Ph.D from the University of Chicago.
This interest led Wright to study at Cold Spring Harbor
during the summers of 1911 and 1912, after which he entered
the University of Illinois for graduate work in biology.
After graduating with a Master's degree in 1912. he accepted
an opportunity to work with Ernest William Castle of Harvard's
Bussey Institution. The research would concentrate on mammalian
genetics, particularly as exhibited in guinea pigs.
For his Ph.D, he investigated the inheritance of coat colors
in the animals, received the degree in 1915, and went on
to work on animal husbandry for the U.S. Department of Agriculture
in Washington, D.C, where his task was to improve livestock.
Wright suggested, producing via inbreeding to promote genetic
dominance over fringe traits. "Systems of Matings," published
in 1921, was the culmination of mathematical work on selection
and breeding. Eventually, he would continue this line of
investigation in studying population demographics.
(second from the left in front row) at Cornell University
in 1922. Courtesy of the Archives of the Department
of Plant Breeding, Cornell University
Wright decided to return to the work that he loved best,
and joined the faculty of the University of Chicago to teach
and research genetics. He embarked upon a distinguished
career of publication at the university level, writing on
genetics in populations and path analyses that could be
applied to mathematical and social scientific models. Wright's
achievements in these areas were groundbreaking.
As a statistician, Wright began work in 1917 with covariant
analyses to determine the importance of various factors
in defining traits. This expertise was extended into animal
breeding. Mammalian genetics was one of his main interests.
At the Bussey Institution, he was concerned with studies
of rats, guinea pigs, and rabbits. Wright published on color
inheritance in 1917 and 1918, the year in which he pioneered
path analyses in his study of body characteristics in animals.
On evolution, Sewall Wright was surely one of the most
renowned researchers of the century. Wright developed a
theory that attributed a substantial amount of genetic variance
or "creativity" to small genetic fluctuations among small
population groups. This was an innovative idea and caused
the well-documented debate with the Englishman R.A. Fisher,
who insisted that variance could be analyzed only in relation
to large populations. Wright specialized in this field of
population genetics while a professor at the University
Zoology faculty, circa 1945. Wright is the second from
the left in the bottom row.
One of Wright's peculiar interests was in inbreeding, perhaps
because his parents were in fact first cousins. His extensive
guinea pig crosses were also notable.
Upon mandatory retirement from the University of Chicago
in 1955 at the age of 65, Wright entered the University
of Wisconsin, and became the Leon J. Cole Professor of Genetics
for 5 years. As a secondary interest, Wright also engaged
in philosophy. On the philosophy of science, he expressed
to the American Society of Naturalists in 1952, "It is the
task of science, as a collective human undertaking, to describe
from the external side, such statistical regularity as there
is in a world in which every event has a unique aspect,
and to indicate where possible the limits of such description.
It is not a part of its task to make imaginative interpretations
of the internal aspect of reality. The only qualification
is in the field of introspective psychology in which each
human being is both observer and observed, and regularities
may be established by comparing notes."
Wright was known to be shy and unassuming but intense in
academic matters. James Crow of the University of Wisconsin's
Genetics Department traveled to Chicago with a student of
his to ask Wright some questions on genetic experiments.
Wright disappointed the men when he responded to each question
that he was "unable to answer" it. The men left disillusioned,
only to find that Wright had researched each question, and
had written a 14- page response attending to every possible
intricacy of each question. Professor Millard Sussman, who
was the dean of the University of Wisconsin Medical School,
offered that Wright was "a remarkable man . who lived his
entire life for population genetics and related areas of
Louise Wright, Sewall Wright, Kimura, Ohta, and an unidentified
woman at the Mishima Experimental Station at the time of
the International Conference of Genetics in Japan in 1968.
In evolutionary biology Wright created a particularly outstanding
work, Evolution andthe Genetics of Populations,
in four parts, of which the final volume was released in 1978
when he was 98 and he was "retired. " Among the numerous awards
and honorary degrees received by Wright were the Balzan Prize
(1984), Medal of the Royal Society of London (1980), the National
Medal of Science (1966), the Weldon Medal of the Royal Society
of London (1947), the Elliott and Kimber Awards from the National
Academy of Sciences (1947 and 1956), and the Lewis Prize from
the American Philosophical Society. Wright's biographer, William
Provine, predicted that "historians and biologists in the
21st century will look upon Wright as perhaps the single most
influential evolutionary theorist of this century."
Sewall Wright married Louise Williams, a genetics teacher
at Smith College, in 1921, and they had three children Elizabeth
Rose, Richard, and Robert. He was a Unitarian, and attended
church in Madison during the years when the minister was Max
Sewall Wright died on March 3, 1988, at the age of 99, after
a long and very productive life.
by James F. Crow, Professor Emeritus of Genetics and
Medical Genetics, University of Wisconsin
untimely death occurred after complications from a fractured
pelvis, the result of his slipping on an icy spot during
one of his daily long walks. It may seem strange to regard
a death in his 99th year as untimely, but not for Wright.
He was eagerly looking forward to participating in this
summer's International Congress of Genetics in Toronto and
enjoying banter about what to do in his second century.
Only a few hours before his death he was discussing his
most recent paper, wondering whether his reprints had arrived,
signing a check for the coming month's rent, and wondering
how he could handle his income tax from the hospital. Yet
in many ways a sudden death was a blessing. A long confining
illness would have been very hard for one accustomed, as
he was, to a high level of physical and mental activity.
Walking and, when possible, swimming were very important
to him, and he couldn't read in a hospital bed.
Wrights death marks the end of an era. He had been
for many years the sole survivor among those who established
genetics as a solid science starting about 1915, a group
that included Muller, Stadler, Sturtevant, Bridges, Fisher,
and Haldane. With the latter two he founded the subject
of population genetics and gave natural and artificial selection
a quantitative basis.
a baby Racoon at the Provine Farm in New York. Photo
by Doris Marie Provine.
Wrights life and work are abundantly
documented. There is a full-length biography, a reprinting
of 42 of his 212 and several shorter articles. Provine
has taped more than 120 hours of interviews and has preserved
virtually all of Wrights voluminous correspondence.
There is also an oral history. Future historians will
have a plethora of material. Because so much has been
written about his professional life, and much more will
be, I have elected to give a more personal account of
this amazing man.
Wrights first paper was published
in 1912 and his last in 1988, a span of 76 years. Wrights
four volume series was written in his late 70s and 80s.
His last paper appeared in the January, 1988 issue of
the American Naturalist. He retained his intellectual
vigor until the end. Although his eyesight deteriorated
badly, he learned to read with a machine that projected
the printed page onto a television screen. He always liked
history and biography, but only in his later years did
he have the leisure to indulge this interest. In his last
few weeks he read biographies of Jefferson, Tchaikovsky,
Einstein, and the Kennedys and Fitzgeralds. And he could
discuss them in detail. He was dissatisfied with the Einstein
biography, and asked for a book with less personal life
and more relativity.
Wrights intellectual life extended
far beyond the normal range in both directions. He was
also a precocious child. At age seven, before starting
school, he wrote a pamphlet entitled "The Wonders
of Nature which still exists. It included sections
about constellations, squashes, ants, dinosaurs, bees,
marmosets, and the story of a wren that could not be dissuaded
from nesting in the family mailbox. His report on the
chicken gizzard is typical: Have you ever examined
the gizzard of a fowl? The gizzard of a fowl is a deep
red color with blue at the top. First on the outside is
a very thick muscle. Under this is a white and fleecy
layer. Holding very tight to the other. I expect you know
that chickens eat sand. The next two layers are rough
and rumply. These layers hold the sand. They grind the
food. One night when we had company we had chicken pie.
Our Aunt Polly cut open the gizzard, and in it we found
a lot of grain, and some corn.
Philip Wright, Sewalls father, was
a polymath and was on the faculty of tiny Lombard College
in Galesburg, Illinois. He taught mathematics, astronomy,
surveying, economics, physical education, and English composition.
He loved poetry and music and was disappointed that Sewall
did not take to them. He had a printing press on which he
printed his poems, as well as the College bulletins. Sewall
and his brothers, Quincy and Theodore, printed the first
poems of Carl Sandburg, who was a student in their father's
composition class. Philip Wright later moved to Harvard
and the Brookings Institution where he published a number
of books on economics. One of them, The Tariff on Animal
and Vegetable Oils, included an appendix by Sewall;
Quincy went on to become a distinguished scholar in the
field of international law, while Theodore was chief engineer
at Curtis-Wright, a Civil Aeronautics commissioner, and
acting president of Cornell University. He is said to have
turned down the presidency because he didn't like raising
Sewall Wright was born December 21, 1889,
in Melrose, Massachusetts, but grew up in Galesburg, Illinois,
where he attended Lombard College. He learned about the
subject of genetics by reading Punnetts account of
Mendelism in the Encyclopedia Brittanica. Although
biologists regard Wright as a formidable mathematician,
he never took any advanced courses; his math, beyond what
he learned from his father, was self-taught.
photo-sketch of Wright by Edward Schumann
Between his third and fourth years of college,
he made use of his surveying and mathematical skills by
working with a crew surveying for a railroad line in the
Standing Rock Reservation in South Dakota. It was an exciting
time for him, in the Old West tradition with cowboys, Indians,
mule skinners and outlaws; and he loved to tell about it.
Late in the year he developed a lung infection and had to
stay in a caboose. He was not too ill, however, to climb
on the roof to see Halley's comet. While confined to the
caboose, he read Taits (1890) book on Quaternions.
After his death I found what must be the same book, with
many of the problems checked, these presumably being the
ones that he had worked. It appears that he got about half
way through the book. Curiously, J. B. S. Haldane also read
Taits book on Quaternions under strikingly similar
circumstanceswhile recovering from wounds in World
War I. As far as I know, neither of them made use of this
technique in his later work. One consequence of Wrights
lung infection was that he was refused life insurance by
New England Mutual, something he found increasingly amusing
as his age advanced far beyond the usual life expectancy.
Upon graduation from Lombard, he received
a fellowship at the University of Illinois. During this
year William Castle visited the campus and, after an interview
with Wright, hired him on the spot as an assistant. Wrights
Ph.D. from Harvard came in 1915. His thesis was on coat
colors in guinea pigs, but he also worked out ways to measure
inbreeding during this time.
From 1915 to 1925 he was senior animal
husbandman in the United States Department of Agriculture.
During this period he did his classical studies on inbreeding
and factor interaction in guinea pigs, the analysis of livestock
breeds, and the method of path analysis. The last was a
novel method for interpreting correlations in complex causal
systems. His original paper on path analysis, "Correlation
and Causation," was rejected by the Bureau of Animal
Industry, but was later published, thanks to the intercession
of his colleague G. N. Collins, a leading maize geneticist.
Wright also had trouble with the publication of his monumental
analysis of corn and hog correlations. It was rejected by
the officials in the Department of Agriculture on the grounds
that an animal husbandman had no business writing about
economics. Henry Wallace, later to become Vice President,
eventually learned of the paper and, through the influence
of his father, then Secretary of Agriculture, arranged for
its publication. This may well have been the zenith of the
In 1926 Wright moved to the University
of Chicago where he continued his guinea pig studies and
wrote his influential papers on evolutionary theory. There
he had several graduate students who went on to distinguished
careers. Curiously, only one did a thesis in population
genetics and none in mathematical theory; Wrights
emphasis at the time was on developmental and physiological
genetics. At age 65 he retired from Chicago and was for
5 years Professor at the University of Wisconsin. Frugal
Wisconsin never paid him a full salary, only a supplement
to his Chicago retirement annuity. For this, the University
got more than 30 years of Wright quality worksurely
the best bargain Wisconsin ever had.
An aspect of Wrights life that is
not fully appreciated was his great service to others. While
at the United States Department of Agriculture he answered,
fully and conscientiously, numerous letters from farmers
and breeders. He had heavy teaching responsibilities at
the University of Chicago, often two courses in the same
term. His lectures were always carefully prepared, and he
was in the labs himself.
He was often called on to review manuscripts,
difficult ones especially. He was one of the most frequent
reviewers for Genetics. Many a published paper is
better for Wrights attention. Once, as an anonymous
reviewer, he spent an enormous amount of time re-analyzing
the data in a paper on mouse genetics, and reached the opposite
conclusion. The author simply rewrote the conclusion. Wrights
reputation as a reviewer was so great that he was sometimes
credited with reviews he didn't write.
camp. Wright is Second from left.
Wright was quiet, shy, introverted, and
uneasy with small talk. He liked to talk, but only when
there was substance. Conversations were often strained until
the right button was pressed; then he was off on what was
typically a long monologue. He liked to talk about his ancestors
(for example, Judge Samuel Sewall, of Salem witchcraft fame),
the connections between some of these ancestors and characters
in Shakespeares historical plays, his childhood, his
days on the railroad surveying crew, his travels, his guinea
pigs, and, of course, his theory of evolution. All who heard
him as a lecturer and teacher have vivid, affectionate memories
of his crowding an enormous amount of factual information
into a lecture; his talking and writing at breakneck speed;
his note-cards, illegible to all but him; his covering the
blackboard with symbols and his clothes with chalk, and
erasing the board with any object at hand (although he denied
the story of his using a guinea pig for this purpose); and,
above all, his invariably running overtime. His wife Louise
repeatedly reminded him to confine his lecture to the allotted
time. He duly promised, but simply found it impossible to
Wright has had an abundance of medals,
prizes and awards, essentially all for which a population
geneticist is eligible. He has had a number of honorary
degrees although, as he liked to say, far fewer than Herbert
Hoover. He has been president of the Genetics Society of
America, the American Society of Zoologists, the Society
of Naturalists, the Society for the Study of Evolution,
and the Tenth International Congress of Genetics. To mention
one more, he was the only geneticist ever to be elected
a fellow of the Econometric Society. He method of path analysis,
which uses correlations to analyze complex interrelationships
in nonexperimental data, has recently become de rigueur
in some social sciences. At Wrights 90th birthday
banquet a Wisconsin sociologist said that Wrights
contributions were such that the Sociology Department was
prepared to offer him an assistant professorship.
Wright married Louise Williams, who, in
contrast to her husband, was an easy conversationalist and
made friends readily. She especially liked to travel, and
encouraged him to take long automobile trips which they
both enjoyed. She died in 1975 leaving him very lonely,
although this was not apparent; he was not one to share
such feelings with others.
My favorite anecdote epitomizes this modest,
unselfish man with his self-deprecating wit that I want
to repeat it. While writing his books he received a modest
stipend from the National Science Foundation and during
this time the Foundation offered to provide an inflationary
adjustment to his pay. He was in his late 80s at the time.
When I brought him this good news, he replied that, according
to his careful calculations, his productivity was declining
at exactly the same rate as the value of the dollar and
he didn't deserve any salary increase. He never accepted
Abridged from Genetics
199, May 1988. Courtesy of the Genetics Society of America
Wright in 1954
Very few geneticists have written seriously
about philosophy. Wright is an exception. He discovered
that his Chicago colleague, Charles Hartshorne, shared a
similar view about the philosophy of organism, and they
became lifelong friends.
The philosophy is in the tradition of Leibniz. Wright's
view is that there is no material basis for a mysterious
"emergence" of new properties as systems become
more complex. This being the case, one is forced to assume
that such properties as consciousness must necessarily reside
in the most elementary particles. He has developed this
view in several papers; a good example is his presidential
address to the American Society of Naturalists, published
in 1953 under the title "Gene and Organism.
Wright's philosophical view has attracted
some attention among philosophers, and he has several times
been invited to participate in national and international
conferences. It has not received any significant attention
from biologists. Wright found it amusing that his views
of the biological organism got more notice from philosophers
than from his fellow biologists. His teacher, Wilhelmina
Key, wrote him after receiving a reprint of his presidential
address that at last he had written a paper that she could
From Sewall Wright, the Scientist
and the Man, Perspectives in Biology and Medicine,
25, 2 Winter 1982