Barbara Mcclintock (1902-1992)


One of the most important geneticists in history, Barbara McClintock was born in 1902, in Hartford, Connecticut.  She attended high school in New York City and then went to college at Cornell University.  She planned on studying plant breeding, but as the program would not accept women, she majored in biology.  She received her Ph.D. in 1927 and was able to study plant genetics while working on her doctorate.  McClintock had a hard time finding work. Even after she was hired at the University of Missouri, she quit after a short time because the biology chairperson told her that as a woman she would never be hired as a full professor.  Finally in 1942, Carnegie Institute offered her a research position in their Department of Genetics. 

The Institute gave McClintock a cornfield, laboratory, and the ability to focus solely on research.  She happily spent the next 43 years studying genetic mutations by examining changes in plants and pigments in kernels of maize.  While studying maize, McClintock noticed changing patterns of coloration in the kernels between generations, leading her to infer that the reason genetic material changes between generations is that genes move around on the chromosomes.  Gregor Mendel’s principles of heredity were still fairly new at the time and acceptance of his principles was not widespread yet. McClintock’s discovery was generally ignored by the male scientific world. 

Improved molecular techniques in the 1970s and 1980s allowed other scientists to confirm McClintock’s discovery.  In 1983, at the age of 81, she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for her “discovery of mobile genetic elements.”  She became the third woman to receive a Nobel Prize in science on her own and the first American woman to do so.  McClintock also held the honor earlier in her career of being the first female president of the Genetics Society of America and the third woman ever elected to the National Academy of Science.  McClintock died in 1992.



Additional Resources:

Web Sites:


  • Comfort, Nathaniel E. The Tangled Field: Barbara McClintock's Search for the Patterns of Genetic Control. Harvard University Press, 2001.
  • Federoff, Nina and David Botstein, editors. The Dynamic Genome: Barbara McClintock's Ideas in the Century of Genetics. Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, 1993. NOTES: Essays on McClintock's work and influence.
  • Fine, Edith Hope. Barbara McClintock: Nobel Prize Geneticist. Enslow Publishers,1998.
  • Keller, Evelyn Fox and W.H. Freeman (contributor). A Feeling for the Organism: The Life and Work of Barbara McClintock. W.H. Freeman &Co., 1993.
  • The Discovery and Characterization of Transposable Elements: The Collected Papers of Barbara McClintock. (Genes, Cells, and Organisms, 17.) Garland Pub., 1987.

Works Cited:

  • "Barbara Mcclintock,” National Academies of Sciences, n.d., (14 December 2005).
  • Blyth, Myrna ed., 100 Most Important Women of the 20th Century (Des Moines, Iowa: Ladies’ Home Journal, 1998), 94.