Barbara McClintock, Nobel Lecture, 1983

Barbara McClintock

Scientist and Cytogeneticist

When the ground-breaking geneticist Barbara McClintock won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1983, she was being recognized for discoveries made decades earlier. In the late 1940s, she began experimenting with the maize plant, observing how hereditary characteristics, like the colour patterns of kernels on an ear of corn, for instance, changed over successive generations. In the 1940s and 1950s, the Nobel Committee explained, her research ‘proved that genetic elements can sometimes change position on a chromosome and that this causes nearby genes to become active or inactive’. Genetic transposition, as this process is called today, has broad implications for evolutionary studies and disease control.

McClintock, who was born in Connecticut in 1902 and received her PhD from Cornell University in 1927, made many of her most important discoveries in obscurity. Some historians have suggested she was overlooked, or not taken seriously, because of her gender. In 1953, feeling isolated from the scientific community, she stopped publishing her research. Still, she continued her work, believing it would eventually be acknowledged (‘One must await the right time for conceptual change,’ she wrote many years later.) At the Nobel Prize ceremony, she gave a short, surprising banquet speech, in which she described her years working without recognition as ‘a delight’, for the uninterrupted freedom they provided.

Nobel Lecture 1983

Your Majesties, Your Royal Highnesses, Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am delighted to be here, and charmed by the warmth of the Swedish people. And I wish to thank them for their many courtesies.

I understand I am here this evening because the maize plant, with which I have worked for many years, revealed a genetic phenomenon that was totally at odds with the dogma of the times, the mid-nineteen forties. Recently, with the general acceptance of this phenomenon, I have been asked, notably by young investigators, just how I felt during the long period when my work was ignored, dismissed, or aroused frustration. At first, I must admit, I was surprised and then puzzled, as I thought the evidence and the logic sustaining my interpretation of it, were sufficiently revealing. It soon became clear, however, that tacit assumptions – the substance of dogma – served as a barrier to effective communication. My understanding of the phenomenon responsible for rapid changes in gene action, including variegated expressions commonly seen in both plants and animals, was much too radical for the time. A person would need to have my experiences, or ones similar to them, to penetrate this barrier. Subsequently, several maize geneticists did recognize and explore the nature of this phenomenon, and they must have felt the same exclusions. New techniques made it possible to realize that the phenomenon was universal, but this was many years later. In the interim I was not invited to give lectures or seminars, except on rare occasions, or to serve on committees or panels, or to perform other scientists’ duties. Instead of causing personal difficulties, this long interval proved to be a delight. It allowed complete freedom to continue investigations without interruption, and for the pure joy they provided.