Barbara McClintock

by Faith Adams


What do you think of when you hear someone say "invention" or "discovery?" Albert Einstein could be one of your thoughts, or perhaps the first light bulb. You don't normally think of the man who invented the air conditioner. Even less do you think of a woman. Barbara McClintock is one of these scientists who is overlooked, yet has made a great contribution to the world we live in today. We often forget about the smaller discoveries that have made life easier, such as McClintock's. Even so, she deserves just as much recognition as any other scientist.

Personal Life

Barbara McClintock was born to Thomas and Sara McClintock on June 16th, 1902, in Hartford, Connecticut. She studied hard throughout her school life, and, in 1919, she enrolled at Cornell University in New York. After six years, she graduated with her own Ph.D. Although she was a genius, she was not much of a social butterfly. She never married, nor did she have any children. McClintock lived through both World Wars. This, though, really did not affect her because her discovery was made late in her life, at the age of 81, 38 years after World War Two. It seems she was more affect by the sexist viewpoints of the world. No man wanted to hire a woman, much less a doctor. This caused her to have to hunt for employers, one of the struggles of her life. Luckily, though, she found quite a few jobs such as the Instructor of Botany at Cornell University and Assistant Professor at the University of Missouri. In all, she lived in Connecticut, New York, California, and Missouri, bouncing from job to job. Finally, she died of natural causes on September 2nd, 1992, in Huntington New York at the age of 90 years old. Even though she had aged, Barbara was still working on new scientific discoveries when she died.

The Discovery

McClintock was a cytogeneticist, and is famous for her discovery of mobile genetic elements. She specifically studied maize, and while studying the individual kernels, found that through heredity there are transposable elements that affect the offspring. This was a major scientific breakthrough in genetics and completely changed the study of genes. If McClintock had not discovered this, our knowledge of genetics and heredity really wouldn’t be correct; her discovery altered everything we thought we knew about genetics. She stated, “I never thought of stopping, and I just hated sleeping. I can't imagine having a better life.”

Still Inspiring

Throughout her life, McClintock had to overcome the massive sexist negative comments towards her. Barbara was often mistreated because she was a woman, and woman supposedly weren’t as smart or hard-working as gentlemen. Everyone mostly thought her ideas were ridiculous and she was crazy solely because she was female. Even so, she commented, “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.” I, being a woman myself, find it really inspiring that McClintock went on and pursued what she loved, ignoring any negativity directed at her. I think that she was inspired by other woman who were defeated and brought down by men. She wanted to show them she was still capable of anything. She proved to the world that it didn’t matter if she was woman; she could still change the world. This, I believe, helped others understand that ladies are just as intelligent as men. She even went on to win over 15 awards, including the Nobel Prize for Physiology. I believe you would be quite upset and humiliated to find out that a person you denied a job, based on their gender, went on to win a Nobel Prize. Barbara McClintock triumphed through every challenge she faced and, truly, is one of the most overlooked but amazing scientists of her time.


Kathleen Krull, "Lives of the scientists : experiments, explosions (and what the neighbors thought)"