Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Barbara McClintock

On this day in 1983 cytogeneticist Barbara McClintock (1902–1992) was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for her discovery of mobile genetic elements, or “jumping genes.” This discovery helps explain genetic mutation, how bacteria develop resistance to antibiotics, and how cells become cancerous.

McClintock in her lab in 1947.

McClintock earned a B.S. (1923), M.S. (1925), and Ph.D. (1927) from Cornell University. She was a National Research Council Fellow and Guggenheim Foundation Fellow, and in 1931, with colleague Harriet Creighton, published a paper establishing that chromosomes form the basis of genetics. Still, she was a woman, so Cornell would not hire her as a professor. 
From 1936 to 1941 she worked as an assistant professor at University of Missouri, and then joined Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York. She remained there for the remainder of her extraordinary career.
At Cold Harbor she continued the work she began in graduate school: the chromosomal analysis of maize. McClintock discovered that genetic information is not stationary. These controlling elements, as she called them (or “jumping genes”) can move to different positions along the length of a chromosome, causing genetic mutations. Her discovery, first announced in 1951,  would decades later earn her a Nobel Prize. At the time, though, her findings were received as scientific heresy. Lecture invitations stopped coming, and she was largely ignored by her peers. She stopped submitting work for publication and devoted herself entirely to the research. She was truly puzzled by the rejection of her findings. After all, the evidence was there and her interpretations sound. Those closest to her, however, revered her profound understanding of her subject matter as almost mystical. Her isolated, monk-like devotion to her work only heighted her mystique—that and her detachment from the results. “I never felt the need nor the desire to defend my views. If I turned out to be wrong, I just forgot that I ever held such a view. It didn't matter.”
McClintock’s accolades and awards include (but are not limited to):
  • Achievement Award, Association of University Women, 1947
  • Merit Award, Botanical Society of America, 1957
  • Kimber Genetics Award, National Academy of Sciences, 1967
  • National Medal of Science, 1970
  • Lewis S. Rosenstiel Award for Distinguished Work in Basic Medical Research, 1978
  • The Louis and Bert Freedman Foundation Award for Research in Biochemistry, 1978
  • Salute from the Genetics Society of America, 1980
  • Thomas Hunt Morgan Medal, Genetics Society of America, 1981
  • Honorary Member, The Society for Developmental Biology, 1981
  • Wolf Prize in Medicine, 1981
  • Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award, 1981
  • MacArthur Prize Fellow Laureate, 1981
  • Honorary Member, The Genetical Society, Great Britain, 1982
  • Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize for Biology or Biochemistry, 1982
  • Charles Leopold Mayer Prize, Académie des Sciences, Institut de France, 1982
  • Induction into the National Women’s Hall of Fame, 1986

Of the time before she was showered with accolades, when she was all but shunned, she had this to say: “Instead of causing personal difficulties, this long interval proved to be a delight. It allowed complete freedom to continue investigations without interruption, and for the pure joy they provided.”

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