As a former student of biology and history of science, the topic of
women in science is one that is near to my heart. These three portraits
feature three 20th century women scientists who made seminal
contributions to their fields: Barbara McClintock in genetics, Grace
Hopper in computer science, and Chien-Shiung Wu in nuclear physics.
The idea of a pantheon isn’t limited only to figures in traditional mythologies. Famous figures in modern times, when present in our collective consciousness, can also form their own pantheons. With this project I explored the roles of prominent 20th century women scientists: the symbols associated with them and their work, the larger-than-life nature of their accomplishments, and their contributions to their respective fields.
[genetics] Barbara McClintock’s most famous accomplishment is the discovery of transposons, or jumping genes. She used phenotypic color variations in corn kernels to study transposable elements. She received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1983.
[computer science] Grace Hopper invented the first compiler for a programming language, helped develop COBOL (one of the first high-level programming languages), and popularized the term “debugging” after removing a moth from a computer. She was also a US Navy Rear Admiral and an avid teacher, among her many accomplishments.
[nuclear physics] Chien-Shiung Wu was an experimental physicist and one of the leading experts in her time on beta decay. She is best known for conducting the Wu experiment, the results of which contradicted the then-widely accepted law of conservation of parity. She was also a respected professor.
Barbara McClintock, who won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1983 for her discovery of transposable genetic elements. The remarkable thing about her discovery is among other things the fact that she did so as early as the 1940’s. Way before anyone had an idea about molecular structure of DNA. Genetics was an obscure and unfashionable field at that time. Noone really believed her. Until all those famous others like Morgan, Watson, Crick, Pauling etc. made their discoveries - and her work was reestablished.
But there is another reason why I chose her, one that is even more important for me. Howard Green, a colleague, wrote this about her after she died in 1992:
“Barbara McClintock was a woman who rejected a woman’s life for herself. She began to do it as a small child and never deviated. Her childhood was not a happy one, and perhaps this provided the force, the moral tension that was so strong in her and so necessary for the life she lived. And we must not forget that at the foundation of every creative life there lies a sense of personal inadequacy that energizes the struggle. This sense was strong in Barbara.”
Barbara McClintock is a distinguished cytogeneticist who led the research on maize cytogenetics. Her work studying how chromosomes change during replication was groundbreaking - such as her microscopic analysis of genetic recombination. She won the Nobel Laureate in 1983 for Physiology or Medicine for discovering transposition - mobile genetic elements.
Barbara McClintock won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1983 (she remains the only woman to have received an unshared prize in that category). She studied corn for most of her life, which might sound boring, but guess what? It was AWESOME CORN. Her corn studies allowed her to make significant discoveries and demonstrations in genetics, from the process of genetic recombination (crossing-over) to genetic mapping.
McClintock faced sexism in her field that prevented her from receiving proper recognition for her work for well, a long time (like, 30 or forty years).
Barbara McClintock (June 16, 1902 – September 2, 1992) was a United States geneticist. She won the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine in 1983 for her discovery that certain genes in corn can move from one position to another along the length of a chromosome, causing genetic mutations. Many scientists had scoffed at her findings (first announced in 1951) because they ran contrary to the accepted theory that genes occurred at specific sites on chromosomes and were not able to move. Her research marked the beginning of modern molecular genetics.
McClintock was born in Hartford, Connecticut. She entered Cornell University’s Agriculture School in 1919, and earned a doctorate in plant genetics in 1927. McClintock held several faculty positions at Cornell and other universities in the 1920’s and 1930’s before joining the staff of the Carnegie Institute of Washington genetics laboratory at Cold Spring Harbor, on Long Island, in 1942.
Barbara McClintock began her scientific career at Cornell University, where she pioneered the study of cytogenetics-a new field in the 1930s-using maize as a model organism. Indeed, the marriage of cytology and genetics became official in 1931, when McClintock and graduate student Harriet Creighton provided the first experimental proof that genes were physically positioned on chromosomes by describing the crossing-over phenomenon and genetic recombination. Although Thomas Hunt Morgan was the first person to suggest the link between genetic traits and the exchange of genetic material by chromosomes, 20 years elapsed before his ideas were scientifically proven, largely due to limitations in cytological and experimental techniques (Coe & Kass, 2005). McClintock’s own innovative cytogenetic techniques allowed her to confirm Morgan’s ideas, and these techniques are numbered among her greatest contributions to science.
Discovering TEs Through Experimentation with Maize
As previously mentioned, McClintock is best known for her discovery of transposable elements through experimentation with maize. However, in order to understand McClintock’s observations and the logic that led to her discovery of TEs, it’s first necessary to be aware that the phenotypic system McClintock studied-the variegated color pattern of maize kernels-involves three alleles rather than the usual two.
How do we know that pieces of DNA can jump around? Barbara McClintock
Barbara McClintock is a towering figure in the field of genetics and cell biology, with a career that spanned practically the entire 20th century. She’s perhaps best known for her discovery of transposable elements–bits of DNA that jump around the genome. But she was also the first to observe chromosomal crossing over and describe its relationship to genetic recombination. She described how chromosomes protect their ends and what happens when that protection goes away. And that’s just the highlights. The way the story is sometimes told, McClintock’s accomplishments were ignored until decades after the fact, but this isn’t strictly true. She was way too awesome to ignore, and had already been elected to the National Academy of Sciences (an incredibly prestigious appointment) by the time the work I’m going to describe would be published in 1950.
What people would fail to recognize was not her discovery of transposable elements, but the full significance and widespread applicability of her findings. Perhaps this is because she was truly ahead of her time. She would describe movable genes and genetic regulation before the structure of DNA was solved–even before DNA was universally accepted as the genetic material.
I don’t know if you’re getting this or not, but I really love Barbara McClintock.
Barbara McClintock is best remembered for her discovery of transposons, mobile genetic elements that can ‘jump’ around the genome, but her work on maize genetics revolutionized many aspects of the field, including demonstrating genetic recombination, producing the first genetic map of maize, and demonstrating the role of the centromere and the telomere. Her work on mobile genetic elements was decades ahead of its time and not widely understood when she first introduced it, but she became the only woman to win an unshared Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology in 1983 because of her work.
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