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Barbara McClintock (1902 - 1992)

David Ardell

Until recently, scientific research was considered beyond most women's abilities, despite notable historical exceptions - such as that of the great 19th century co-discoverer of radioactivity, Marie Curie. If a woman displayed natural talent in science and mathematics, the option to pursue her talents as a scientist was likely to be closed off in favor of more traditional roles: mother, wife, and homemaker. Sadly, this was true in America even as late as the 1950s. That is what makes Barbara McClintock and her lifelong achievements in genetics all the more notable. McClintock launched her scientific career at Cornell in 1919 and, in the face of social adversity and tremendous intellectual challenges, established herself among the great geneticists of this century.

At the time McClintock started her career, scientists were just becoming aware of the connection between heredity and events they could actually observe in cells under the microscope. McClintock pioneered the field of maize cytogenetics, or the cellular analysis of genetic phenomena in corn, which for the first time provided a visual connection between certain inheritable traits and their physical basis in the chromosome.

McClintock rose to many challenges throughout her career - not only scientific but personal - from other scientists who felt intimidated or threatened by what one of her colleagues described as her "independence, originality, and extraordinary accomplishment." In the most notable case, Lowell Randolph, her advisor and colleague, became extremely irritated with McClintock's success in solving a problem he had spent his entire life working on. McClintock became the dominant member of his research team, and Randolph found this intolerable. McClintock soon departed, going on to greater things.

For her ground-breaking work in the genetics of corn, Barbara McClintock earned a place among the leaders in genetics. She was elected to the prestigious National Academy of Sciences in 1944. Despite this, she still met with social adversity in her department at the University of Missouri and finally left there, too. She kept her next appointment at the Carnegie Institute at Cold Spring Harbor for the rest of her life.

In 1983, Barbara McClintock was awarded a Nobel Prize in Genetics. To this day, her work is highly esteemed, still relevant despite the fact that much of it was completed over half a century ago, before the advent of the molecular era.

Posted: 1998

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