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
The Cold War in the 1950s between the Soviet Union and the United States produced fear of domestic subversion. The McCarthy Era purged suspected Communists from government, the entertainment industry, and universities, and labeled gays and lesbians as un-American security risks. General anxiety contributed to a popular conception of the family as a source of social stability, and reinforced traditional notions of women’s place at home. In 1963, Betty Friedan called this promise of fulfillment through the domestic arts the “feminine mystique,” and advocated instead that women seek personal careers.
For two decades, a burgeoning economy and a growing consumer culture had expanded the availability of jobs for women. Notable was the increase in the workforce of married women, especially middle-class white women and educated women, though they were viewed in the media as working less for a career than to assist their families with needed income or desirable amenities for the home.
Some working-class women in labor unions challenged traditional cultural norms, such as the United Electric, Radio and Machine Workers who achieved non-discrimination clauses in local contracts. Middle-class women moderated their interest in women’s issues, promoting instead advancement through the League of Women Voters, YWCA, and the American Association of University Women. More radical women in Women Strike for Peace demonstrated against the nuclear arms race and were summoned to the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1962. Many activists would join the Civil Rights Movement.
The movement against segregation following World War II dates from the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which ruled that segregated schools are inherently unequal and thus a violation of the 14th amendment. African-Americans were given new hope, and in 1955 Rosa Parks, a black seamstress who refused to give up her seat to a white man on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, triggered a bus boycott of critical importance. Black women and white women took part in boycotts, sit-ins, demonstrations, and marches. A culminating achievement in 1965 was the Voting Rights Act pushed through by President Johnson.
Mexican-Americans in the southwest also fought to improve their life and work conditions. In 1962, Dolores Huerta, co-founder with Cesar Chavez of the United Farm Workers, played a leading role in organizing a national boycott of grapes that forced growers to sign a contract with the union.
Other ethnic groups were soon to come to America, enriching its diversity. The Immigrant and Nationality Act of 1965 established an immigration system based on family preference. Half of the new immigrants came from Mexico and Central and South America, while a quarter were from Asia. Two-thirds of the immigrants were women and children. While poverty and acculturation were issues, for many the time-honored American process of upward social mobility had begun.
Special thanks to Barbara E. Lacey, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of History, St. Joseph's College (Hartford, CT) for preparing these historical summaries.