Dr. McClintock

reisner at angis.su.oz.au reisner at angis.su.oz.au
Sat Sep 12 03:09:00 EST 1992


	There's a tendency in obituaries to dehumanise their subjects.  
In the case of Barbara McClintock that's particularly regrettable.  
Below are set down a very few observations and anecdotes about this 
genius, for make no mistake that's what she was.  She well knew she 
was, but there was absolutely no arrogance in her, she just knew it 
to be a fact and needed no reassurance.

	I worked for Dr. McClintock as a field hand during the summers 
of 1951 and 1952.  When I got the job, I was reassured by some of 
the young postdocs around that the individual whom she hired the 
year before had been fired a week after starting, but not to worry 
because to their knowledge during the course of the summer the hand 
had been fired 11 times in all.  It was a matter of pride to me that 
I didn't get fired once, 'though I think it was a close call a 
couple of times.  She expected things to be done properly but only 
very rarely did I think she was unfair in her criticism.

	The impression that Dr. McClintock didn't discuss her work 
(she was in the midst of the Activator - Dissociator experiments at 
the time) is quite wrong, she was pleased to discuss it and at 
length if you were prepared to try to understand it.  And despite 
the hectic schedule of pollination's and other field work (she was 
in the field at least as many hours as me) she spent hours 
explaining the work to a second year undergraduate.

	During scientific meetings McClintock could make her point of 
view very forcefully, sometimes to the marked discomfort of 
colleagues with opposing views.  But with it she had a quick and 
light wit.  At one CSH Symposium, L.J. Stadler after a fairly heated 
exchange said, 'but BARBARA we're in the same boat on this.'  The 
reply shot back, 'If that's the case, L J, I'm jumping ship.'

	On the other hand when young postdocs were giving their first 
and often very nervous seminars, she'd ask early on a simple 
question that she new the youngster could answer easily.  If others 
present thought she was a flaming fool, she couldn't have cared 

	One afternoon she and I were doing a series of pollination's 
when a butterfly landed on one of the plants.  In response to my 
question as to what kind it was, I got the sharp reply, 'I don't 
know, what d'ya think I am, a damn naturalist.'

	In the early 50's Dr. McClintock was employed by the Carnegie 
Institution of Washington at Cold Spring Harbor, the head of the Lab 
at the time was M. Demerec who also was head of the Cold Spring 
Harbor Laboratory, same place two different administrative and 
funded entities.  President of the Carnegie Instit. in those years 
was Vannevar Bush who visited its different departments from time to 
time.  When he got done talking to Demerec he'd often drop in on Dr. 
McClintock, put his feet up on the desk and say to her, 'Well, 
that's done - now let's talk about baseball', and they did.

	She once said something to me which summed up Barbara 
McClintock as a scientist and a human being as well as anything I've 
seen written about her.  'You know, I've never been to a seminar or 
heard a paper where I didn't learn something.'

	When Einstein died, The Washington Post political cartoonist 
Herblock drew a picture of the Earth as seen from space with a sign 
post on it reading 'Albert Einstein Lived Here'.  

	So did Barbara McClintock.

Alex Reisner
Australian Genomic Information Centre
Sydney University



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