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Barbara McClintock was one of the great geneticists of the Twentieth Century. She was a Nobel laureate (1983) who studied the genetics of corn (maize). She revolutionized genetics with her discovery of "jumping genes"

Born in Connecticut in 1902, she was named Eleanor, but renamed Barbara, which her parents for some reason thought suited her independent nature better.  She was the third of three girls, followed by a brother, born to Thomas Henry McClintock and Sara Handy McClintock.  Her father was a medical doctor and the son of British emigrants, while her mother's family traced back to the Mayflower. Always going her own way, Barbara earned the reputation of a maverick.  

McClintock had a stormy relationship with her mother, but was close to her father.  Her mother opposed her going to college, believing that she would then never marry, but her father intervened and she went to Cornell in 1919. There she found her interests in genetics, which continued through her Masters and Doctorate, finishing in 1927. She joined (and indeed helped put together) a group on the cytogenetics of maize that included another later Nobel Laureate, George Beadle.

McClintock's studies on maize chromosomes became basic to genetics and she went on to study briefly under Goldschmidt in Germany in 1933-34.  However the rising storm in Europe forced her to return to the United States where she became an assistant professor at the University of Missouri- Columbia. She was, however, unhappy with the political situation at the university and soon took another position that opened up at Cold Springs Harbor Laboratory. In 1944 she was elected the first woman president of the Genetics Society of America and in the same year she became the third woman to be elected to the National Academy of Science.

Still, many of her discoveries were questioned, especially those of regulating genes and transposons, until research by other scientists, such as Jacques Monad and François Jacob on regulator genes, led to the same conclusions. Her discoveries are now standard fare in genetics textbooks.  She also contributed to modern genetic understanding in ways that are still not completely appreciated.  Nevertheless, she was awarded many honors during her life time, including the Nobel in 1983 and 12 honorary doctorates, including those from Harvard and Yale. In such a short diary I can only touch on her career.

When Barbara McClintock died at the age of ninety she had become one of the most well-known and respected geneticists of the planet.  

Literature References:

Keller, Evelyn Fox. 1983. A Feeling for the Organism. W. H. Freeman and Co., New York.

Internet References:

Barbara McClintock - Autobiography

Barbara McClintock

Originally posted to Desert Scientist on Sun Mar 03, 2013 at 03:43 PM PST.

Also republished by SciTech, History for Kossacks, and Backyard Science.

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