Saturday, June 16, 2012

Happy Birthday, Barbara

Barbara McClintock stampIt's the birthday of one of the most distinguished scientists of the 20th century, Barbara McClintock, born in Hartford, Connecticut (1902). She grew up in the semi-rural Flatbush section of Brooklyn, and, growing up, she was much more interested in playing sports with the boys of her neighborhood than she was in studying.

Unfortunately, McClintock's mother refused to let her attend college. So McClintock got a job at an employment agency and spent all her free time at the library. Her parents eventually realized that she wasn't going to come to her senses and get married any time soon, so they relented and let her study biology at Cornell University.

She became interested in the study of maize, or Indian corn, because its multicolored kernels showed visible evidence of genetic changes from one generation to the next. She became one of the first scientists to show that the visible traits of a plant were directly linked to the structure of its chromosomes.

Despite her revolutionary work, Cornell would not give her a faculty appointment, because she was a woman. A friend eventually got her a permanent research position at another school, and she was elected president of the Genetics Society of America, but her research into genetics was so radical that it was ignored by other scientists. Nobody accepted her theories. She eventually stopped publishing her work altogether, taking a Rockefeller Foundation position to study maize as part of the Carnegie Institution of Washington. When she retired, she was made a Distinguished Service Member, which allowed her to continue working with graduate students and colleagues in the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory as scientist emerita.

It wasn't until the 1970s that molecular biologists with more sophisticated tools began to prove that Barbara McClintock's theories about genetics were correct, and suddenly she was seen as a visionary. In 1983, she was awarded the Nobel Prize for the work that she had first published in 1951.

She said, "I know my corn plants intimately, and I find it a great pleasure to know them."
This is (mostly) taken from The Writer's Alamanac, with some addtions.

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