reisner at angis.su.oz.au
reisner at angis.su.oz.au
Sat Sep 12 03:09:00 EST 1992
BARBARA McCLINTOCK A FEW RECOLLECTIONS
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.
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