Barbara McClintock won the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1983, for her discovery of transposable elements in genetic material. She is the only woman to receive an unshared prize in that category.
They called them “jumping genes.” McClintock, a plant geneticist, discovered that genes could slice themselves out of one place and move to another, thus changing how genes were expressed. Now we know that our predispositions to things ranging from illness to weight gain or loss all depend on how our genetic material decides to express itself. But in 1950, someone said that McClintock’s discovery was like being told that your kitchen could jump into your attic.
Although some scientists scoffed, others agreed with Marcus Rhodes when he said that he didn’t fully understand the speech, but if Barbara said it, it must be right. McClintock, however, stopped publishing because of negative response to her discovery.
McClintock won many honors before she received the Nobel, and was well regarded in the field of maize genetics. But the first biography of McClintock, by Evelyn Keller (A Feeling for the Organism, 1983) portrayed the scientist as the victim of sexism. In 2001, Nathanial C. Comfort wrote a new biography, The Tangled Field: Barbara McClintock’s Search for the Patterns of Genetic Control, which debunked Keller’s theory.
In my play Maize, I combine the theories. It wasn’t easy being an eccentric woman scientist, if you were born in 1902. Women scientist, maybe. Eccentricity was only for men. No wonder she felt marginalized. No wonder she retired from the fray.
Although she received all her degrees, including her PhD, at Cornell University, she had trouble finding an academic position; then she had trouble with the sexism of the 1940s. She took a job as a researcher at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island, where she remained for the rest of her career. There she could work on her beloved maize plants, make her discoveries, and live as she wanted to.
McClintock never married. She died in 1992.
Written for Sheroes of History by Judith Pratt, who has been an actor, director, theatre professor, and reviewer. Now she mostly writes plays. She is an adjunct professor of theatre at Wells College, NY, and a free-lance writer for business and higher education. @JudithPratt
Find out more…
You can find out much more about Barbara’s life on this website, which has digitised many of her papers, including letters which she wrote to colleagues.
This YouTube video give a really great synopsis of her life and helps make sense of the complicated genetic science she worked in: