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  • Sara Thompson

Barbara McClintock: Nobel Laureate in Genetics

By Sara Thompson

Special to the Enterprise

Image credit is the Smithsonian Institution, restoration by Adam Cuerden.

Barbara McClintock was born in June 1902 in Hartford, Connecticut. She was the third of four children and was sent to live with her aunt and uncle in Brooklyn, New York when she was three years old while her father established his medical practice. The rest of her family moved to Brooklyn a few years later. McClintock attended schools in Brooklyn and graduated from Erasmus Hall High School in 1919.

Throughout her schooling, McClintock was shy and preferred to be alone. In her chosen solitude she would read and study and developed a deep interest in science. After she graduated high school, she wanted to attend college. Her mother was resistant to the idea and preferred she start a family first, but her father hesitantly agreed and helped her enroll in the College of Agriculture at Cornell University. She studied botany and developed an interest in genetics when she took a field course in 1921. She received her Bachelor of Science degree in 1923 and enrolled in Cornell’s graduate program. She received her master’s degree in 1925 and PhD in 1927. Both degrees were also in botany, as Cornell did not allow women to major in genetics.

Her graduate and postgraduate work was in the new field of cytogenetics and she focused her studies on maize. She received numerous fellowships and grants that funded her research, even allowing her to study in Germany for six months. In 1936, she accepted a position at the University of Missouri at Columbia. A few years later, after repeated refusals of tenure, she realized she had achieved all she could at the University of Missouri and left her job 1940.

Late in 1941, McClintock would accept a one-year research position at the Carnegie Institution of Washington’s Department of Genetics at Cold Spring Harbor on Long Island, New York. Before the one-year appointment was over, it had been converted to a full-time position for McClintock. Her research showed that certain genes were responsible for the changes in physical characteristics in the maize plant. By turning on or off certain genes, one could affect the characteristics in the leaf or kernel color. In 1957, she received funding from the National Science Foundations and the Rockefeller Foundation to study maize in Central and South America. Her research included the chromosomal, evolutionary, and morphological characteristics of various varieties of maize. Her published study was titled The Chromosomal Constitution of Races of Maize, which was a steppingstone into science areas such as ethnobotany, evolutionary biology, paleobotany, and more. She retired from her work at Long Island Laboratory in 1967 but remained as a scientist emeritus.

McClintock has been the recipient of many awards and recognitions. She became the third woman elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1944. She was awarded the National Medal of Science in 1971, was the first recipient of the MacArthur Foundation Grant in 1981, and at the age of 81, received a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1983, for her work on mobile genetic elements. McClintock passed away at the age of 90 in September of 1992, leaving behind a legacy of hard work and discovery.

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