Barbara McClintock, born on June 16, 1902, was a scientist and a distinguished American cytogeneticist.
Born in Hartford, Connecticut, she was the third of four children. From an early age she was very independent, and at the age of three, was moved to live with her aunt and uncle in Brooklyn.
McClintock attended the Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn, and wanted to attend Cornell University afterwards in order to study science. McClintock’s mother opposed the idea of higher education for girls on the grounds that no one wanted to marry a smart girl.
Though the family was low on money, her father insisted that McClintock follow her dream, and she began attending Cornell in 1919.
McClintock specialized in botany at Cornell, and received her bachelor’s degree in science in 1923. She was interested in the field of genetics and began studying that as well. Her masters’ and doctorate degrees were officially in botany, as women were forbidden from studying genetics at Cornell, she studied genetics under Professor C. B. Hutchison.
After being appointed as a botany instructor, McClintock assembled a group that studied cytogenetics in maize. This work became a vital part of many textbooks on the subject, and McClintock also invented a method of staining with carmine to see maize chromosomes.
By studying these chromosomes, McClintock was able, for the first time, to link specific chromosomes to groups of traits in the maize.
Her publications were breakthroughs in the world of genetics, and the National Research Council awarded McClintock several postdoctoral fellowships. In 1931 she met geneticist Lewis Stadler, who introduced her to the practice of using X-rays as a cell mutagen.
Through this practice, McClintock was able to identify ring chromosomes, which only occur as a result of radiation damage.
In 1936, McClintock was offered an Assistant Professorship at the University of Missouri. However, she was not happy with the position. Due to being female she was excluded from faculty meetings, and passed over for promotions.
In 1940 she gave up on the university, and in 1941 became a researcher at the Carnegie Institution of Washington’s Department of Genetics.
In 1945, McClintock became the first female president of the Genetics Society of America.
In 1957, McClintock was given funding from the Rockefeller foundation and the National Science foundation to study maize in South America. The study went on well into the 1970s, and she published the landmark “Chromosome Constitution of Races of Maize” in 1981.
Over the course of her life, McClintock received 14 honorary Doctorate of Science degrees.
She was inducted into the National Woman’s Hall of Fame in 1986, and has been awarded the National Medal of Science, the Albert Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research, the Wolf Prize in Medicine, the Thomas Hunt Morgan Medal, the Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize, and most notably the 1983 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine.
McClintock died on September 2, 1992, though her work lives on.