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Barbara McClintock

Barbara McClintockAKA Eleanor McClintock

Born: 16-Jun-1902
Birthplace: Hartford, CT
Died: 2-Sep-1992
Location of death: Huntington, NY
Cause of death: unspecified
Remains: Buried, Huntington Rural Cemetery, Huntington, NY

Gender: Female
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Scientist

Nationality: United States
Executive summary: Discovered transposable genes

American cytogeneticist Barbara McClintock observed differing coloration patterns in kernels of corn over generations of controlled studies, and proposed in a series of papers culminating in 1930 that genes can travel on and between chromosomes. Her theory of genetic transposition, commonly called "jumping genes", explained that chromosomes can break and recombine themselves, a process of genetic transformation known as crossing over. She also discovered "linkage groups" in the genes of Drosophila (fruit flies) in 1931. Remarkably, much of her work was accomplished before the principles of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) were understood. James Watson, co-discoverer of DNA, said that McClintock was "one of the three most important figures in the history of genetics", the other two being Gregor Mendel and Thomas H. Morgan.

Named Eleanor at birth, her parents decided that Barbara better fit her personality and legally changed her name when she was about four months of age. Her interest in attending college was discouraged by her mother, who feared that she would be rendered "unmarriageable" by an education, and she did not apply for admission to Cornell until almost a year after her high school graduation. Her mother was right McClintock occasionally dated in her first years at college, but then seemed to consciously discard a social life, and never married. In 1983, however, she became the first woman to win an un-shared Nobel Prize in Medicine.

McClintock conducted much of her scientific work alone, putting in decades of long hours in solitude at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. She eschewed most scientific gatherings and had few extended conversations or collaborations with other scientists, a voluntary isolation which no doubt slowed the acceptance of her work. Her gender, of course, suggested to many scientists that her work was of little consequence, and her chosen area of expertise, maize (corn), was a further hindrance, as it was of little interest to scientists of her time. She also showed no hurry to publish her findings in scientific journals, and unveiled many years of her work in a single symposium at Cold Spring Harbor in 1951. Even then, her work was generally dismissed until it was confirmed through use of improved molecular techniques in the 1970s. She died in 1992.

Father: Thomas Henry McClintock (physician)
Mother: Sara Handy McClintock (pianist, m. 1898)
Sister: Marjorie McClintock (b. 1898)
Sister: Mignon McClintock Crowell (b. 1900)
Brother: Malcolm Rider McClintock ("Tom", b. 1904)

    High School: Erasmus Hall High School, Brooklyn, NY (1918)
    University: BA Botany, Cornell University (1923)
    University: MA Botany, Cornell University (1925)
    University: PhD Botany, Cornell University (1927)
    Lecturer: Genetics, Cornell University (1927-31)
    Scholar: Genetics, Cornell University (1934-36)
    Teacher: Genetics, University of Missouri at Columbia (1936-41)
    Professor: Genetics, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (1942-67)
    Professor: Andrew D. White Professor-at-Large, Cornell University (1965-74)

    Guggenheim Fellowship 1933-34
    AAUW Achievement Award 1947
    NAS Kimber Genetics Award 1967
    National Medal of Science 1970
    Louis and Bert Freedman Foundation Award 1978
    Lewis S. Rosenstiel Award for Distinguished Work in Basic Medical Science 1978
    GSA Thomas Hunt Morgan Medal 1981
    MacArthur Fellowship 1981
    Wolf Prize in Medicine 1981 (with Stanley N. Cohen)
    Lasker Award 1981, Basic Medical Research Award
    FAS Charles Leopold Mayer Prize 1982
    Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize 1982
    Nobel Prize for Medicine 1983
    CMG Albert Abraham Michelson Award 1984
    National Women's Hall of Fame 1986
    American Academy of Arts and Sciences
    American Association for the Advancement of Science
    American Medical Women's Association
    American Philosophical Society
    American Society of Naturalists
    Carnegie Institution for Science Staff Scientist, 1942-67
    Genetics Society of America President, 1945
    Indian Society of Genetics and Plant Breeding Foreign Member
    National Academy of Sciences 1944
    National Research Council Fellowship, 1931-33
    National Science Foundation Major funding, 1950s
    New York Academy of Sciences
    Rockefeller Foundation Agricultural Science Program, 1963-67
    Royal Society Foreign Member, 1989
    Sigma Xi Scientific Research Society
    English Ancestry

Author of books:
The Discovery and Characterization of Transposable Elements (1987, collected papers)

Appears on postage stamps:
USA, Scott #3907 (37, issued 4-May-2005)


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