Barbara McClintock was a groundbreaking woman in the field of genetics who made many significant discoveries about the nature of genes, specifically how they can change during a cell’s division. She won a Nobel Prize for her work and has been praised worldwide for her ingenious mind.
Dr. McClintock was born on July 5, 1911, in New York City, New York. She was a highly intelligent child and always loved to study new things. While she was still a child her father encouraged her to read more books on science instead of just reading stories that were primarily intended for young adults. Her love of science and determination to understand the world around her led her to become an accomplished scientist at an early age.
Dr. McClintock received a PhD in botany from Cornell University in 1932 after completing a thesis on the embryogeny of the Mexican morning-glory. The study was based on her observations of the plant’s chromosomes, which she documented extensively through photographs and drawings. After attending Cornell, she spent two years as a research fellow at the University of Missouri as well as one year as an instructor.
While working at Gould Medical College as a researcher, Dr. McClintock began studying genetics and other cellular structures within plants, specifically the living cells that form their seeds and pollen under ultraviolet light.
Her research involved studying maize plants, which she would examine on a cellular level, under an electron microscope. In doing so she saw that genes could actually physically move from one part of the plant to another during any given division cycle. These movements often occurred due to mutations or external influences such as DNA from other plants or bacteria.
Her work challenged the long-held belief that genes were static and fixed within a given section of DNA. Instead, genes could actually move and affect other parts of a cell, which her work eventually proved. Her studies also revealed that genes could move in opposite directions during cellular division and that sometimes they even transformed into entirely different genes.
Although her research was groundbreaking at the time when it was conducted, her findings were disputed within the scientific community for many years when they were first reported in the early 1950s. The controversy began when she announced in her book “The Mechanism of Mendelian Heredity” that gene movement had been observed in various different plant cells, not just maize pollen cells as she had originally reported.
Many of her peers were skeptical of her claims, leading them to question whether she had simply made mistakes in her observations. They believed that she was trying to promote her own theories without any substantial evidence to back them up. At the time there were no advanced microscope techniques that could be used to verify her findings, nor had she published any results that would need to be verified by other scientists. Eventually, however, technology advanced and it became easier for researchers to study grains of maize at a cellular level.
The experiments confirmed what Dr. McClintock had originally observed years before, which prompted many scientists to acknowledge the validity of her findings. She also received a Nobel Prize for her work in 1983 along with William F. Plenge for their molecular analysis of the structure of DNA.