International Women’s day is today, 8th March, so I thought I’d write a short post about a female scientist that I often think of when the topic of inspiring women comes up. I read about her in the first year of my degree when I put together a presentation for a seminar about a Nobel Prize winner and have thought it a shame when people haven’t heard of her. Barbara McClintock is not a particularly famous name, not like Marie Curie or even the overlooked Rosalind Franklin, but she was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine unshared, and one of only 11 to ever be awarded the Prize.
Born in 1902 into a fairly humble family in Connecticut, Barbara studied botany at Cornell University, though her mother worried it would make her unmarriageable. Barbara moved into genetics as a graduate, though her MA and PhD were awarded in botany as it seems women weren’t technically allowed to major in genetics at Cornell in the early 1920s.
Her science was ground-breaking across her career. In the 1930s she proved the existence of chromosomal crossover and she went on to discover the breaking-fusion-bridging cycle that leads to chromosomal instability, though it was her work in mobile genetics using corn plants that dominated her career. It took decades before the scientific community, fixed on the idea of genes being fixed, accepted the transposon theory Barbara put forward in the 1950s. She was 81 when her Nobel Prize was awarded, though she’d started to research transposition in her mid-30’s.
“If you know you are on the right track, if you have this inner knowledge, then nobody can turn you off… no matter what they say.” – Barbara McClintock
Her attitude was something else people talk about. Deeply passionate about her work, she focused on her corn plants almost to an obsession. She was often described as independent, uncompromising and solitary, and biographies often make reference to the fact that she never married or had children… but she won a flippin’ Nobel Prize though so I reckon she could be however she wanted to be. I wonder if the same references would be made if she were an introverted, unmarried man…?
I have been inspired by her because of this attitude rather than in spite of it. While I strongly believe that science is better when it is shared, that working in a team makes you work harder and interacting with scientists and non-scientists improves your approach to research, I’ve often admired her tenacity to pursue her passion regardless of what others thought of her. She wasn’t concerned with pleasing people but rather let the science speak for itself – what a payoff it gave, changing the field of cytogenetics and breaking ground for women in science.
She died the year I was born so maybe we’ll tag team it, Barbara?
Here’s a nice article from 2008 about her work: