Meet Barbara McClintock: Nobel Prize-Winning Geneticist

June 13, 2012

Barbara McClintockBarbara McClintock, whose work revolved around the study of maize, changed the world of genetics. This brilliant, self-effacing scientist — the first woman to win an unshared Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine — said in her official statement about the award, “It might seem unfair to reward a person for having so much pleasure over the years, asking the maize plant to solve specific problems and then watching its responses.” That the pronoun “I” is absent says much about McClintock.

While writing a biography about her, I learned that AAUW played a key role in supporting McClintock’s groundbreaking work. Born in 1903 as the third of four children, McClintock studied at Cornell University and earned her doctorate in 1927. When she was researching in the 1940s, funding was scarce, and 95 percent of awards from other large programs were going to men. In 1947, AAUW was one of the first national organizations to recognize McClintock’s research with a financial prize. The $2,500 AAUW Achievement Award cited work that “yielded epoch-making results … with brilliant promise of still further achievement.”

In her acceptance speech in Dallas, McClintock called for greater support of young people who are interested in science — especially women. “On these young scientists we must concentrate much of our effort if we wish to preserve this potential source of cultural wealth,” she said. As a lifelong member of AAUW, I related to this statement, which confirmed once again the value of our mission of advancing equity for women and girls through advocacy, education, philanthropy, and research.

In her early breakthroughs, McClintock embodied this potential. She identified the 10 maize chromosomes and proved the theory of “crossing over,” the phenomenon of genetic material switching places between chromosomes. When she proved that genes aren’t static on chromosomes but can move about and control other genes, the press dubbed the finding “jumping genes.” Because McClintock worked alone with no secretary or lab assistants and published very little of her research, it took decades for the world to recognize that her meticulous work applied not just to maize but to all living organisms.

McClintock, who died in 1992, has been called one of the most important figures in 20th century science. Her insights into genetics earned her worldwide recognition. But McClintock cared as much about the future of science and those who would become scientists as she did about her own work. “Young people have to be motivated to know what they’re doing,” she said. “We need to have people who know organisms can do fantastic things.” This, too, goes to the heart of what AAUW stands for.

We should all be proud of the important part AAUW played in encouraging this dedicated scientist long before the world recognized her remarkable, pioneering contributions to the field of genetics.

This post was written by AAUW Del Mar-Leucadia (CA) Branch member Edith Hope Fine. Her book is available in e-reader format


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