International Day of Women and Girls in Science: Vivienne Parry celebrates geneticist Barbara McClintock
Thinking about Women in STEM this week has made me want to introduce Barbara McClintock to you. She brings together two parts of my life, my undergraduate years taking genetics and my time at Genomics England. She may not be very familiar to many of you, yet what she discovered underpins everything we do here.
She was the first and so far, only woman to have won the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine unshared. And many people think that she should have been in the running for a second Nobel prize. She worked on maize (corn), first at the University of Missouri where she had a miserable time, excluded from Faculty meetings. Soon after the war, she moved to Cold Spring Harbor. She used X rays to break chromosomes and watched what happened next, proposing the then unimagined notion of genetic recombination, so often an issue in the rare diseases we investigate. She showed the role of telomeres and centromeres and described transposons, dubbed ‘jumping genes’. This work was to win her the Nobel four decades later at the age of 81. Although her descriptions of jumping transposons was not contested, her explanation that they had a hand in controlling genetic regulation was met with such puzzlement and hostility from the scientific establishment that she actually stopped publishing her data, fearing that it would alienate the scientific mainstream. As far back as the 1940s, she conceived of the genome as being dynamic constantly responding to its environment. It’s this idea of the dynamic genome and its role in development and evolution that could have – should have – netted her a second Nobel. Those working on cancer genetics in particular see her vision of the cell and genome playing out every day, thanks to the molecular methodologies that are now available.
Her ideas had been years ahead of their time and being an excluded and marginalised woman both hindered and helped her scientific career. Her tenure at Missouri and later at Cold Spring Harbour depended on the patronage of men which irritated her. But the fact that she was an outsider allowed her to think differently and not be hamstrung by the dominant theories of the time. However, we should not think of Barbara McClintock as a woman who was ignored. In her day, she was greatly respected. A thing that particularly delights me is that Jim Watson (he of double helix fame) was scared stiff of her because if ever one of his tennis balls landed in her carefully cultivated patches of maize, she would shoot out to harangue him, even though by this time he was her boss.
Her work was rejected by one major academic because, as a woman, she couldn’t possibly understand the maths, so therefore must be wrong, yet she was to prove them all wrong over the years. Talking about why she had gone into genetics in the 1920s she said:
‘This field had just begun to reveal its potentials. I have pursued it ever since and with as much pleasure over the years as I had experienced in my undergraduate day.’
Indeed. And this is where our histories coincide. Genetics was a big part of my undergraduate life and continues to be a source of joy and inspiration, just as it was for her. And please don’t ever think of lobbing tennis balls into my garden because I’ll go all Barbara McClintock on you.
Vivienne Parry, OBE, is Engagement Director at Genomics England.