What does corn, a Nobel Prize, pants, and jumping genes all have in common? Barbara McClintock.
Barbara was born on June 16, 1902 in Harford, Connecticut. She was christened Eleanor, but her parents called her Barbara as they believed Eleanor to be too feminine for their feisty daughter.
All throughout high school, many teachers saw Barbara’s intelligence and thought her to be a good fit for a college professor. Barbara’s mother opposed the idea of a female college professor and would not allow Barbara to attend college. Finally, in September 1919, Barbara’s father convinced her mother to allow Barbara to attend Cornell University at the age of 17. She immensely enjoyed herself at Cornell and even became president of the women’s freshman class.
In the fall of 1921, Barbara attended the only genetics course available to undergraduates at Cornell University. Though genetics was not accepted as a “field” at that time, Barbara was highly interested in it and this was evident to her professor, Dr. Claude Hutchinson. He invited her to participate in the only other genetics course at Cornell, one at the graduate level. This sealed Barbara’s fate as a geneticist.
A cytology at Cornell also piqued Barbara’s interest. She became fascinated with the power of chromosomes and decided to pursue an advanced degree in cytogenetics. It was during graduate school that Barbara began her chromosomal analysis of corn, a project that would last her a lifetime.
In 1931, Barbara and a colleague published a paper that established chromosomes the basis of genetics. Two years later Barbara was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship to study in Germany, but returned home early because of the rise of Nazism. Upon her return to the United States, Barbara learned Cornell would not hire her as a female professor because she was a woman. Rockefeller University then decided to fund Barbara’s research at Cornell.
In 1936, Barbara ended up received a position at the University of Missouri. Her intelligence, spunk, and no-nonsense attitude intimidated her male colleagues. She was considered a troublemaker because she wore pants to work. The dean even threatened to fire her if she got married or if her male research partner left. This treatment prompted Barbara to leave the university and move to Cold Spring Harbor, New York in 1941.
While in New York, Barbara examined the variations in the colors of corn kernels and discovered that genetic information is not stationary. After spending many hours staring at corn cells under a microscope, Barbara discovered that the genes could “jump” to different parts of a chromosome and turn on and off. This was a groundbreaking discovery and explains why the world is filled with so much variation.
When Barbara shared this information in 1951, few believed her but she did not mind because, as she said, “When you know you’re right, you don’t care.”
It took the scientific community 20 years to recognize Barbara’s achievements. The determination of DNA as the genetic material allowed other scientists to verify Barbara’s work. She was swamped with awards and honors, most prominently the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1983, almost 30 years after her initial discovery. Barbara was the first woman to be the sole recipient of the award. She was also the America’s first woman president of the Genetics Society and the first person to develop a complete genetic map of corn.
Much of what is known about chromosomes can be attributed to Barbara: the feisty, pants-wearing, corn-studying cytogeneticist.
To learn more about Barbara and her corn:
Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World, By: Rachel Ignotofsky