An Intellectual biography of Nobelist Barbara McClintock
CALS Impact Statement
Barbara McClintock`s work has been highly influential in modern genetics, because she showed that genetic material could move easily from one chromosome to another and even from one organism to another of a very different kind. We now know that such exchange of genetic material occurs between organisms, and that, with bioengineering, genetic exchange can be much speeded up. The biography under preparation will demonstrate that McClintock`s work on genetic exchange grew understandably from her earlier work on cytogenetics of corn beginning when she was a graduate student at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. The biography will trace the influence of advisors, colleagues, institutions, and cultural factors upon the development of McClintock`s science.
Research for the project includes careful examination of archival documents (letters, course outlines, departmental records, evaluations, and others) at every institution where McClintock worked, and at the Library of the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia where the bulk of McClintock`s personal papers are preserved. Extensive interviews are being conducted with those who knew McClintock and her work.
The published articles and eventual book that will result from this project will make McClintock`s work, reputed to be very hard to understand, understandable to the thoughtful reader with a minimum of background in the biological sciences. The results are not limited to historians, philosophers and sociologists of science, but to undergraduate and graduate students interested in understanding more about McClintock`s science and her influence upon modern biology.
The issues that prompted this work are the stories and myths that have been written about McClintock`s science. Biographers who have written about McClintock and her work were not botanists or geneticists, or even biological scientists. They did not read her primary papers, and when they did, their interpretations were limited by their lack of understanding of the subject matter. The misinformation in the current literature is misleading to historians of science and students of cytogenetics and molecular biology. The work will examine critically the development of McClintock`s scientific work and her important influence upon the fields of cytogenetics and evolutionary biology from 1929 to the present.
I examined archival documents at the following institutions to document the life and work of Barbara McClintock: Cornell University, Smithsonian Institution, New York Public Library, University of Michigan, Michigan State University, Cornell University, L. H. Bailey Hortorium, University of Wisconsin, University of Minnesota, California Institute of Technology, Stanford University, University of California-Berkeley, University of California-Davis, University of Missouri, Western Historical Manuscript Collections (Missouri), State Historical Society (Missouri), North Carolina State University, United States National Archives (NARA), Rockefeller Foundation Archive Center, Carnegie Institution of Washington (Washington, D.C.), Carnegie Institution of Washington (Cold Spring Harbor, New York), Brookhaven National Laboratory, Missouri Botanical Garden, and West Virginia University.
The documents permitted me to write present my findings at regional and national conferences, and publish articles in research journals and encyclopedia`s to clarify the life and research of Barbara McClintock. These finding have been cited by historians and biological scientists.
This project has demonstrated the limitation of relying on memory to document the history of ideas.
Biography of Barbara McClintock
funding source description
EVERETT HELM VISITING FELLOWSHIP, Lilly Library, Indiana U.
MELLON RESIDENT RESEARCH FELLOWSHIP, American Philosophical Society Library, Philadelphia PA