Women Who Changed the World: Barbara McClintock

In our final instalment of Women Who Changed the World Wednesday, we'd like to introduce you Barbara McClintock.

”I know my corn plants intimately, and I find it a great pleasure to know them.”

Barbara is a scientist’s scientist: driven by curiosity, committed to exacting standards and deeply incisive. Though McClintock made many notable contributions to genetics, she is best remembered for her work on “jumping genes” or transposons. By 1902 it was known that chromosomes carried genetic information, but how they worked remained a mystery. In the late 1940s McClintock demonstrated that certain chromosomal segments could move around, resulting in kaleidoscopic colour patterns in maize.

It would take decades for the importance of this finding to be widely recognised but by the late seventies transposition was seemingly everywhere: it was the mechanism that could make bacteria resistant to antibiotics, make viruses infectious, or even cause cancer.

In 1983 McClintock received a Nobel Prize and the notion that her work had been long underappreciated came to the fore. Interviewers asked how she had managed to go on. She replied simply: “I never thought of stopping, and I just hated sleeping. I can’t imagine having a better life.”

Barbara's influential paper can be found at The origin and behavior of mutable loci in maize by Barbara McClintock-- taken from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 36 (6): 344-355. 

This short biopic of Barbara's incredible life was first published in Oh Comely Issue 29, alongside Cristina BanBan's beautiful illustrations. Inside, we also pluck pennies from pavements, watch caterpillars burst from cocoons, and talk personal turning points. Get your hands on a copy here!

Illustration: Cristina BanBan