Born in 1902, Eleanor “Barbara” McClintock was an American cytogeneticist who changed the field of medicine with her research. As an independent child, her parents decided that Eleanor was too “feminine” and “delicate,” so they dubbed her Barbara instead. During her childhood, McClintock lived in Brooklyn, New York with an aunt and uncle to reduce the financial burden on her parents as her father worked to establish a medical practice.
McClintock completed her high school education at Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn, where she graduated around early 1919. Afraid that it would reduce her chances of marrying, Barbara’s mother vetoed her initial plans to go to college at Cornell. Her father returned from the Army Medical Corps in France in 1919, just in time to intervene and allow Barbara to enroll at the Cornell College of Agriculture. At Cornell, she took a class in the still fairly new study of genetics, which spawned a lifelong interest in the field of cytogenetics. After receiving her Bachelor’s degree from Cornell in 1923, she went on to earn her Masters and PhD in botany from Cornell as well.
It was difficult to find a job during the Great Depression, but McClintock was eventually hired as an assistant professor at University of Missouri in 1936. A few years later in 1941, she left that job for Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, a research facility funded by the Carnegie Institution. Her position at Cold Spring Harbor allowed her the freedom to extensively study the mosaic color patterns of maize at the genetic level. She had noted that the patterns changed too often to be mutations -- something that contradicted prevailing theory at that time. With this stunning discovery, McClintock had identified genetic transposition, what she called “jumping genes,” which became a fundamental concept in medicine, evolutionary biology and more.
Well ahead of her time, she gave a lecture in 1951 that was not well received or understood by peers and attendees. She held off on publishing theories on genetic transposition and controlling elements until other researchers had confirmed her results. Despite the resistance from peers, she knew she was correct, and never stopped pursuing her own theories, but stopped trying to convince others.
Like many women, McClintock’s legacy is one of persistence. She believed in her own knowledge and research, never backing down despite flying in the face of prevailing theory. McClintock became the first woman to win an unshared Nobel Prize in 1983, and she was also awarded the National Medal of Science by President Nixon in 1970.
At AdaMarie, we love Barbara McClintock for her innovative discoveries and her commitment to advancing the field of genetics, even in the face of adversity.