Dr. Barbara McClintock's Obituary
S. A. Modena
samodena at csemail.cropsci.ncsu.edu
Fri Sep 11 04:18:17 EST 1992
>From: SMJDO%ENGR.PSU.EDU at ncsuvm.cc.ncsu.edu
>Subject: Barbara McClintock's obituary
>To: Multiple recipients of list WISENET <WISENET at UICVM.BITNET>
** This information was originally posted on an MIT bulletin board.
I received it via
Donna Huges and Jan Carpenter at Penn State **
Following is from ...
NY Times, Fri, Sept 4, 1992. Page A1-C16
Dr. Barbara McClintock, 90, Gene Research Pioneer, Dies
Dr. Barbara McClintock, one of the most influential geneticists of the
century died on Wednesday night at Huntington Hospital on Long Island.
She was 90 years old and lived nearby at the Cold Spring Harbor
Laboratory, where she had conducted research for more than 50 years.
Dr. McClintock had an uncanny ability to understand the nature of
genes and how they interact decades before biologists discoved the
molecular tools to dissect genetic material. Working with corn all
her life, she is best known for her discovery that fragments of
genetic material move among chromosomes, regulating the way genes
control cells' growth and development.
In 1930, she dicovered that chromosomes break and recombine to
create genetic changes in a process known as crossing over, and
a structure called the nucleolar organizer of the chromosome. This
latter finding was not explained by molecular biologists for another
Modern genetics has known no figure quite like Dr. McClintock, who
worked alone and chose not to publish some of her revolutionary
observations for years, explaining later that she thought no one would
accept the findings. She never gave lectures, as most scientists do
to build their career. Instead, until her last days, she worked in
her laboratory at Cold Spring Harbor 12 hours a day, 6 days a week.
Her findings were so profound that she garnered honors and prizes
throughout her long career, including membership in the National
Academy of Sciences in 1944, president of Genetics Society in 1945,
the National Medal of Science in 1970, the first MacArthur Laureate
Award, for $60K a year for life, in 1981, and a Nobel Prize in
Physiology or Medicine in 1983.
She was first woman to win an unshared Nobel Prize in that category
and the third woman to win an unshared Nobel science prize. The first
was Marie Curie in 1911 and the second was Dorothy C. Hodgkin in 1964,
both for chemistry.
"She was a giant figure in the history of genetics," said Dr. James
Shapiro of the University of Chicago. "I think she is the most
important figure there is in biology in general."
Dr. James Watson, director of the Cold Spring Harbor Lab and
co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, said Dr. McClintock was one of
the three most important figures in the history of genetics, one of
"the three M's," he said. The other two, Gregor Mendel and Thomas
Hunt Morgan, lived in the 19th and early 20th centuries and laid the
groundwork for notions of inheritance.
J.R.S. Fincham of Edinburgh, Scotland, writing of Aug 20 issue of
Nature, said that Dr. McClintock's "solitary style of work, total
independence of thought and extraordinary record of getting things
right have elevated her to the status of a prophet in the eyes of
To the astonishments of molecular geneticists, whose precise tools now
allow them to cut and snip submicroscopic genes, Dr. McClintock's
discoveries about the nature of genes and inheritance were made at a
time when no one even know what DNA was.
In an introduction to a volume of papers about Dr. McClintock,produced
in celebration of her 90th birthday, Dr. Nina Fedoroff of the Carnegie
Institute of Washington and Dr. David Botstein of Stanford U.
described Dr. McClintock's plight. Her ideas about transposable
elements, they wrote, were "ahead of her time and Barbara found
herself in an anomalous and unique position," adding "She was
universally respected and admired as one of the leading geneticists of
her era, yet the reaction of her latest and perhaps most profound
discoveries and insights was often uncompreshending or indifferent and
not infrequently dismissive or even hostile."
Concluding that she could never convince the scientific community, Dr.
McClintock doggedly carried on with her work, carefully filing her
data away and writing them up only in her annual reports to the
Carnegie Institute of Washington, which supported her work.
In her biography of Dr. McClintock, "A Feeling for the Organism," Dr.
Evelyn Fox Keller of the MIT wrote that geneticists were baffled by
McClintock's ideas because they seem too at odds with the very nature
of Darwinian evolution. The theory of evolution holds that changes
occur randomly in genes, giving rise to changes that may or may not
Dr. McClintock, however, was saying that purposeful changes occur in
genes, that transposable elements jump to specific places to insert
themselves into genetic material and alter it.
Another stumbling block, Dr. Keller said, was that Dr. McClintock was
working with corn, a species whose complex patterns of development
were clear to her but not to many others. And she had done her work
alone without the benefit of long discussions trying to explain her
ideas to colleagues.
Finally, in the late 1970's when molecular biologists isolated
transposable elements in bacteria and then discovered that they were
universally used by cells to control genes, Dr. McClintock's work was
rediscovered and widely celebrated as prescient.
Dr. Shapiro said, "I think the implications of this work was just
being realized. The idea that the genome is capable of repairing
itself, and that it is capable of reconstructing itself, that there
are systems in the cell that can detect damage and do appropriate
things to repair it, has tremendous implications for evolution as well
as for genetics."
Because Dr. McClintock worked alone, emphatically rejecting
reductionism, because she was so often right and saw so clearly when
others were muddled, she has gained a reputation as almost a mystic.
Dr. Shapiro said she was more, "someone who understands where the
mysteries lie than someone who mystifies."
Dr. McClintock "understands the complexity of the genonme and the
limits to our understanding of it," she said, adding, "She appreciated
that the problems we are addressing are enormously deep and complex."
Dr. Keller described McClintock as a person who from infancy valued
her solitude and independence.
Barbara McClintock was born on June 16, 1902, in Hartford, Conn. The
daughter of a doctor, she grew up in Brooklyn and learned to live
science while attending Erasmus Hall High School there. When she was
17, she enrolled at Cornell U.'s College of Agriculture, a university
that had been extremely hospitable to women.
When she was a junior she was invited to take the university's
graduate course in genetics and became unofficially a graduate
student. From the time she received her PhD in 1927 until 1941, she
worked at Cornell U. and at the U. of Missouri, collaborating with
some of the country's most eminent geneticists. From 1941 until her
death, Dr. McClintock worked at Cold Spring Harbor, following her own
Dr. McClintock is survived by a sister, Mignon Crowell, who lives in
Florida, and a brother, Thomas N. McClintock of Newtown, Conn.
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