Barbara McClintock

Barbara McClintock
"Over the years I have found that it is difficult if not impossible to bring to consciousness of another person the nature of his tacit assumptions when, by some special experiences, I have been made aware of them…One must await the right time for conceptual change."
- Barbara McClintock

Induction Category:
Science & Health

Born: 1902

Died: 1992

Inducted: 2008

Town: Hartford

Nobel Prize winner Barbara McClintock was one of the greatest geneticists of the 20th century. Her studies of genetic mutation in maize led to her discovery of “mobile genetic elements,” genes that move from one chromosome to another. Though this radical idea has since formed the basis of modern genetic engineering, it took 30 years for her discoveries to be recognized and accepted.

Born in Hartford in 1902 to physician Thomas Henry McClintock and Sara Handy McClintock, Barbara spent some of her early childhood years living with relatives in Massachusetts and in Brooklyn, N.Y., where she attended school. A lack of financial and parental support almost prevented her from continuing her studies, but in 1919 she enrolled at Cornell University’s College of Agriculture where, while studying botany, she discovered her love of genetics. She graduated from Cornell with a B.S. in 1923, an M.A. in 1925 and a Ph.D. in 1927. During her graduate studies, McClintock worked with faculty and other graduate students to pioneer the development of hybrid corn. Her work on maize chromosomes and how they change during reproduction was groundbreaking. She also produced the first genetic map for maize—before the structure of DNA had been identified or the notion of the genome discovered!

In 1941, she accepted a research position at the Carnegie Institution of Washington’s Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island, where she would work until her retirement. In 1944, she was elected to the National Academy of Sciences—only the third woman to be so elected—and the following year she became the first woman president of the Genetics Society of America. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s McClintock received many honors and prestigious fellowships. It was during this period that she would begin her most important work and make her most significant discovery: mobile genetic elements. Since accepted opinion held that genes were static, rather like beads on a string, her theory was generally received with either hostility or a lack of understanding. In fact, because opposition to her work was so fierce, she ceased publishing in 1953.

In the 1960s, Dr. McClintock’s work began to come to light as advances in other areas of genetics occurred. She officially retired from the Carnegie Institution in 1967, but continued in an emeritus role.  In 1970, she became the first woman to receive the National Medal of Science. When the field of genetic engineering became prominent in the 1980s, her earlier work was rediscovered and in 1981 she was awarded the prestigious Wolfe Prize in Medicine. Then in 1983, Barbara McClintock became the only woman to receive an unshared Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine. She was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1986 and received fourteen Honorary Doctor of Science degrees and an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters in her lifetime.

Barbara McClintock died in Huntington, N.Y., in 1992 at the age of 90. Posthumously, she was honored as part of a four-stamp series published by the U.S. Postal Service in 2005 dedicated to American Scientists and has become the subject of several biographies and a number of children’s books intended to foster the study of science among young girls and give them a role model to follow in their academic and career pursuits.

During This Time
1946 - 1965: Women’s Activism in Conservative Times