Barbara Mcclintock: Gene Genie

Becca Anderson (author of The Book of Awesome Women) would like to share this extraordinary geneticist with you.

Barbara McClintock (1902-1992) shown in her laboratory in 1947.jpg

When geneticist Barbara McClintock presented her findings about morphing genes in 1951 after a ten-year scientific study, the result was what is commonly known as a “roof job.” Her peers just didn’t get it; it went right over their heads. A pack of rabid Darwinists, her colleagues preferred to keep to the accepted notions of the day, that genetic change was random in the evolution of a species. Undeterred, Barbara went back to the drawing board and the sixty-hour-a-week lab schedule she set for herself. She preferred the relative peace of her lab to people, preferred corn to fruit flies (the research subject du jour) and she preferred to not publish her work, figuring it would be too much for her uptight colleagues to handle. As it turns out, Barbara McClintock was right an awful lot of the time.

Even as a young child, Barbara McClintock was content in her own company, pursuing her own interests. An avid reader, she was also quite a tomboy, preferring cards and engines to dolls and pots and pans, having no truck with other little girls and the sugar and spice routine. She quickly found her thing—science—and pursued it with a single-minded relentlessness that served her well through the years. Despite the displeasure of her parents, Barbara chose agricultural science as her field of study at Cornell. She performed brilliantly and was asked to stay on for the graduate program in genetics, where she earned a PhD.

She then began to teach and do research, so far ahead of the pack that she became one of only a handful of scientists in the world to first realize chromosomes were the foundation of heredity and to work from this vantage point and understanding. Indeed, she was the scientist to discover the nucleolar organizer within the structure of the chromosome that was the indicator of order during cell division. It would be thirty years after her discovery before science was able to explain her finding in terms of molecular biology. Despite this remarkable beginning to her career and an outstanding record as a genetic researcher, Barbara was never given a promotion while at Cornell. She left for Cold Harbor Laboratory, where her work so impressed everyone that she was elected to the national Academy of Sciences in 1944 and went on to become president of the Genetics Society of America. The first woman to do so!

Not one to rest on her laurels, Barbara McClintock continued with her groundbreaking work, racking up all kinds of awards, prizes, and firsts. She became the first woman to receive an unshared Nobel Prize in physiology and medicine, and has been called the most important geneticist of the late twentieth century. She worked at Cold Harbor until her death in 1983 in the lab where she discovered what everyone wasn’t ready to see.

It might seem unfair to reward a person for having so much fun over the years.”

— Barbara McClintock

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.

The Book of Awesome Women

Boundary Breakers, Freedom Fighters, Sheroes & Female Firsts

Super women as female role models. From the foremothers who blazed trails and broke barriers, to today’s women warriors from sports, science, cyberspace, city hall, the lecture hall, and the silver screen, The Book of Awesome Women paints 200 portraits of powerful and inspiring role models for women and girls poised to become super women of the future. Discover some of the most awesome women known to history while celebrating the greatness of females all over!

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