Growing up in a devout Baptist family, V. Elving Anderson set out to become a minister. But he found his true calling as a geneticist.
And he spent much of his career, as a professor at the University of Minnesota, trying to dispel the notion that faith and science were in conflict.
Anderson, who led groundbreaking studies on the genetics of breast cancer and epilepsy, died March 9 in Stillwater at age 92.
He also was the co-author of a 1995 book, “On Behalf of God: A Christian Ethic for Biology,” which explored two of the subjects closest to his heart.
“His idea was always that there’s no inherent contradiction between the two,” said his son, Dr. Carl Anderson, a child psychiatrist in New York. In fact, he was entirely at home in both worlds, his family said, at a time when religious groups and scientists were often in conflict. Anderson often found himself in the role of peacemaker, trying to help them find common ground, his son said. “He was really very gifted in that.”
Anderson, who was born in Stromsburg, Neb., worked in his family’s funeral home before enrolling at Bethel Seminary in St. Paul, where he met his wife, Carol. At the urging of a professor, he took a class in zoology that changed his life.
He earned his Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota, and taught biology at Bethel before joining the U’s human genetics institute in 1960.
Years later, he would tell an interviewer: “I can see how God was leading me step by step into human genetics research.”
His early research led to his first book, in 1958, “Variables Related to Human Breast Cancer,” which looked at the role of environment and genetics in the disease.
He also led studies to try to pin down the genetic causes of epilepsy and mental illness.
But he also was conscious of the ethical implications of his work, his family said. In a 1988 paper, he argued that scientists were not “playing God” by trying to cure genetic illnesses. “A more reasonable approach is to insist that all of our endeavors be carried out in the spirit of being answerable to God,” he wrote. “The Creator bestows the power of creation … on humans, to be used morally.”
He also served as president of the American Scientific Affiliation, a group of “scientists who serve God.” He once wrote that: “Biology helps me to construct a fuller view of God’s relationship to the world. It doesn’t subtract from it. After all, it is God’s world, so I am appropriately interested in it.” He retired in 1991.
Francis Collins, head of the National Institutes of Health, posted a tribute after Anderson’s death, saying: “For me, Elving represented a wonderfully winsome role model of the scientist-Christian.”
Anderson’s youngest daughter, Martha Anderson, a scientist in Silver Spring, Md., said her father was “quiet and understated” and would often talk at home about his love of science. “He was just the consummate professor,” she said. “He was a teacher at work and at home.”
Starting next month, the University of Minnesota will host an annual lecture in his honor: The V. Elving Anderson Lecture in Science and Religion. The lecture was created by MacLaurin CSF, a group that promotes Christian faith in academic studies.
In addition to his son and daughter Martha, Anderson is survived by his wife of 67 years, Carol Anderson; daughters Catherine Sleiter, of Stillwater, and Christine Anderson-Sprecher, of Laramie, Wyo.; six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
A memorial service has been held.