Barbara McClintock, M.S. '25, Ph.D. '27, Botany

In the cultural imagination, the image of the lone genius tends to skew male: the writer clacking away on his typewriter into the night with a bottle of whiskey, the eccentric painter who is single-mindedly devoted to his art, or the engineer who builds a world-changing machine in his garage over decades of weekends.

 Barbara McClintock
Barbara McClintock in her laboratory

Barbara McClintock’s career is a welcome corrective to these notions. She would have been recognized as a remarkable scientist regardless of her gender or era, but the fact that she was able to make such significant contributions at a time when women were so discriminated against makes her story that much more impressive.

McClintock’s own mother, in fact, was dead set against her daughter going away to college, believing it would turn her into a hopeless bluestocking. It was only when her father intervened at the last minute that McClintock was allowed to head to Ithaca. There, she was recognized as a formidable intellect, and began taking graduate classes as a junior. But during her time at Cornell (where she completed her B.A., M.S., and Ph.D.), women were not allowed to study plant breeding, which had been her area of interest. So McClintock entered her field through the side door of botany, by means of her work on the genetics of maize plants.

To be fair, she wasn’t necessarily missing out on much—genetics, as we know it now, was at its very earliest stages. Researchers were still discovering the connections between what they could observe on a microscopic, cellular level and phenotypical traits in organisms. Much of McClintock’s work, in fact, went towards our understanding of these basic relationships between gene and trait.

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But recognition of the importance of McClintock’s work was a long time coming. In the 1940s, she used experiments on the heritability of mosaic color patterns to show how different genes could interact with each other and, in some cases, recombine. Until then, chromosomes were thought to be static transmitters of information from generation to generation. McClintock discovered that the real picture was more complex—sections of genetic material could “break off” from their spot and move to a different location. This movement changed the sequence at that location, and affected the expression of the “jumping” gene and those around it.

McClintock’s findings struggled to find acceptance for decades. She had spent her early career moving from university to university, partially due to gender discrimination. By the time she made her discoveries, though, she was ensconced in the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, where she was to spend her career. She had gained the respect of those in the field, and she was known as a meticulous researcher. But her ideas were just too ahead of their time.

Because of the reception her work received, she stopped publishing her data on genetic regulation in 1953. She seems to have remained stoic in the face of skepticism, however. “Over the years I have found that it is difficult if not impossible to bring to consciousness of another person the nature of his tacit assumptions,” she wrote. “One must await the right time for conceptual change.”

Not until the 1960s, when other scientists began to corroborate her results, was McClintock’s work recognized for what it was. And once the accolades started coming in, they didn’t stop. She was a member of the first cohort of MacArthur Fellows (the “genius grant”) in 1981. In 1983, she was awarded a Nobel Prize for having discovered controlling elements—almost 40 years earlier.