Barbara McClintock (1902-1992): Fighting the Male Establishment

Barbara McClintock (image via The National Library of Medicine)

“There was not that strong necessity for a personal attachment to anybody…I just didn’t feel it. And I could never understand marriage…I never went through the experience of requiring it.”

I’m pretty sure everyone has had that moment at the dinner table, when we sit staring at the vegetables on our plate, praying our parents won’t make us eat them. All we want is that ice cream sandwich in the fridge, or those fresh-baked cookies grandma left on the counter, still warm on the oven sheet.

But in that chair we remained, staring at a heaping pile of, oh let’s say maize. Now, imagine staring at that maize for close to seven decades. In a way, that’s what cytogeneticist Barbara McClintock did, and she won a Nobel Prize for it too.

Many of the early pioneers of genetics were, by nature, loners who enjoyed solitude as much as many of us enjoy a long hug from someone we love. Gregor Mendel had his garden peas and monastic lifestyle. Thomas Hunt Morgan had his jars of fruit flies, ever searching for mutations. And McClintock? Well, McClintock loved the inner workings of maize. “You’re not conscious of anything else,” she remarked on her experience of looking at a cell under the microscope. “You are so absorbed that even small things get big…Nothing else matters. You’re noticing more and more things that most people couldn’t see because they didn’t go intensely over each part, slowly but with great intensity.”

Growing up, McClintock felt comfortable being alone, however her bright, tomboy personality made her fun to hang around with. “I didn’t play with girls because they didn’t play the way I did. I liked athletics, ice skating, roller skating, and bicycling, just to throw a ball and enjoy the rhythm of pitch and catch,” she said. When not outside, Barbara could sit for hours, reading in an empty room. Solitude became her soulmate.

At Cornell University, McClintock started out like a fireball. Standing proudly at a hair above five feet, she joined a jazz band and played the tenor banjo at various gigs around Ithaca, New York. The rhythm of music, the beats and structure, comforted her, and she stuck with the banjo until her coursework began to overwhelm her desire to play. Still, McClintock briefly joined a sorority for a time and dated a few men, though nothing ever became serious. As for the sorority, she hated the built-in judgments of image:

Many of these girls were very nice girls, but I was immediately aware that there were those who made it and those who didn’t. Here was a dividing line that put you in one category or the other. And I couldn’t take it. So I thought about it for a while, and broke my pledge…I just couldn’t stand that kind of discrimination. It was so shocking that I never really got over it.

McClintock would soon be confronting a different kind of discrimination for the rest of her life. Merely because she was a woman in the field of science, she would face that “dividing line” over and over again, starting when she was twenty-two.

In 1924 McClintock, who’d just finished her undergraduate studies in plant breeding and botany at Cornell,was given a paid assistant job. (Incidentally, at the time there was no degree to be offered in genetics, and only 25 percent of graduates from the College of Agriculture were women.) The man she was supposed to be assisting was Lowell F. Randolph, a tall and confident string bean of a man who had received his doctorate from Cornell and had a position with the US Department of Agriculture.

McClintock and Randolph both had skills in plant breeding as well as laboratory analysis, but their challenge was great: they needed to identify each maize chromosome in order to complete proper cytology tests. Randolph must have thought himself quite the boss, being close to eight years older and over a foot taller than his twenty-two-year-old female graduate assistant who was just starting to dig into her PhD thesis.

And what was it that McClintock wanted to study? Well, she had discovered in the Cornell cornfields a rare maize plant: a “triploid.” This meant the plant had three sets of chromosomes in each cell.

McClintock was excited. She went to her trusted microscope, and over a period of several months analyzed data with Randolph. Back then, they used a technique of analysis that many of us have attempted with a microscope in various science classes: staining and smearing. Common now, Barbara and Cornell University were at the cutting edge in their time.

After analyzing the triploid plant, McClintock and Randolph published their report in American Naturalist. There was only one small problem: Randolph’s name was on top.

McClintock was, for lack of a better word, pissed.

During their partnership, they’d argued over how to solve certain problems, with Randolph accusing McClintock of disrespecting him. Another point of contention was Randolph’s progress (or lack of) regarding the identification of maize chromosomes. His methods, while up-to-date at the time, were not as efficient as his colleague would have liked. She came up with her own method.

Randolph eventually listened to McClintock, but one could argue that his ego took a blow. It’s still unclear why he took top billing, but it was enough for McClintock to march over to her thesis advisor and flatly declare that she was done working with Randolph.

For someone incredibly comfortable with solitude, it was this instance of being bitten by another that caused McClintock to complete even more research alone. She would have later collaborators, but Randolph was the first to witness the feisty nature of a woman who even at age seventy was changing her own flat tires. By 1927 McClintock had blown through her graduate coursework and earned her PhD in cytology, genetics, and zoology, becoming, according to several New York newspapers, “one of the youngest ever to receive the honor” at the age of twenty-four.

Eventually, in 1929, McClintock’s triploid research was published in the journal Genetics.

McClintock had little patience for religion and its offerings of mental comfort. Instead, she devoted her entire adult life to the pursuit of science. She was a loner to the core (she never married or had children), a scientific nun in search of the greatest truths in the smallest places.

A grand total of twenty-three women graduated with degrees related to science in the United States in 1923. Some ninety years later, that number is around 23,000 per year. Only now have the majority of women in the US been given the tools for extensive scientific research in any field they please. McClintock’s life is an example of how much one can accomplish by, for better or worse, never straying from a path.

Did she miss a more rewarding life by not having a family, or by putting her faith in the hands of a microscope rather than a God? As always, the answers are debatable, but it strikes this writer as odd that McClintock’s discoveries, her accomplishments and legacy, have all but been pushed from the public eye as time marches on. Then again, she may not have minded. This is, after all, a person who, at age eighty-one, learned she’d won the 1983 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine while listening to the morning radio. Apparently the first two words she uttered, with subdued annoyance, were, “Oh, dear.”

It could also be that the complexities of McClintock’s field of study push away those who have only a general interest in science. But for those with an interest in genetics, reviewing her life’s work would be an enriching experience—both biographically as well as scientifically.