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Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Barbara McClintock

By Kristy McCaffrey

Barbara McClintock was an American scientist and cytogeneticist who made the first genetic map of maize, and in the process discovered jumping genes.

Jumping genes, or transposons, are small pieces of DNA that have the unusual ability to copy and insert themselves in random places within a genome. These genes—long known as junk DNA—were thought to be nothing more than genomic parasites, but research is beginning to show their importance in evolution.

Barbara McClintock in her lab, 1947.

McClintock, the third of four children, was born in 1902 to a homeopathic physician. Named Eleanor at birth, her parents later changed it to Barbara when they decided she needed a less “delicate” name. An independent child who liked to be alone, she was close to her father but had a difficult relationship with her mother. When Barbara wanted to attend college, her mother was against it, believing it would make her daughter unmarriageable. But her father intervened and she enrolled at Cornell, eventually receiving her Ph.D. in Botany in 1927.

McClintock's microscope and ears of
corn on exhibit at the National
Museum of Natural History.

In the 1940s, McClintock discovered the transposition of genes and the ability of these genes to turn physical characteristics on and off in maize. She developed theories to explain the suppression and expression of genetic information from one generation of maize plants to the next. But due to skepticism of her work, she stopped publishing her research in 1953.

In the 1960s and 70s, her work became more understood and confirmed by other scientists, and in 1983 she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the discovery of genetic transposition, the only woman to receive an unshared Nobel Prize in that category.

McClintock giving her Nobel lecture.

She never married or had children, and died in 1992 at the age of 90.


  1. Genetics is a fascinating subject. I'm so pleased that this clever women managed to help advance or knowledge. Thanks for sharing.

    1. She certainly kept going in the face of adversity. :-)

  2. I have to admire McClintock's father for sending her to college instead of treating her like a female marriage object.
    Although I studied genetics in nursing, I know next to nothing about DNA--pretty amazing work. I got a kick out of the term "jumping genes"--sorta like Mexican Jumping Beans, only not.
    What made you decide to write about this woman and her research, Kristy?

    1. It is really interesting. I didn't know you had to study genetics as a nurse. I found her because in my latest release I had my heroine study the origins of DNA, and I came across McClintock. She was really ahead of her time.

  3. I have a limited science background, but this was fascinating. Junk DNA. Interesting descriptor, although 'jumping genes' is a bit creepy... That she eventually received an unshared Nobel Prize has to be a source of pride in her accomplishments for her family.