Nobel Prize winner Barbara McClintock was one of the greatest geneticists of the 20th century, a time when few women worked in the field. Her studies of genetic mutation in maize led to her discovery of "mobile genetic elements," genes that move from one chromosome to another. Though this radical idea has since formed the basis of modern genetic engineering, it took 30 years for her discoveries to be recognized and accepted.
Since then, numerous foundations and societies have praised McClintock for her research and scholarship. McClintock was awarded honorary doctoral degrees by fifteen universities. She was a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Philosophical Society, received the National Medal of Science, and became the first recipient of a MacArthur Foundation Grant. In 1983, at the age of 81, she received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, the first woman to receive an unshared Nobel Prize in that category.
McClintock's interest in genetics stemmed from the genetics course she took at Cornell University as an undergraduate. Arriving on campus in 1919, during a time when few women entered scientific disciplines, she studied botany in the College of Agriculture, then followed her interests into the emerging field of cytogenetics. As an undergraduate, she participated in student government and took up music, specifically jazz. She ultimately received her Bachelor of Science degree in 1923, her master's in 1925, and her PhD in 1927, all from Cornell.
She continued her affiliation with Cornell as a researcher and instructor from 1927 to 1931. During her graduate studies, McClintock worked to pioneer the development of hybrid corn. Her groundbreaking research on maize chromosomes and how they change during reproduction allowed for the development of the first genetic map for maize, even before the structure of DNA had been identified, or the notion of the genome discovered. This led to her being awarded several postdoctoral fellowships from the National Research Council, thus allowing her to continue to study genetics at Cornell and other organizations. In 1933, McClintock returned to Cornell, and with some support from the Rockefeller Foundation, stayed for almost three years while she continued her research on campus.
These days, the spirit of the pioneering plant geneticist permeates Cornell's campus. Besides a small building on the campus that bears her name, her alma mater has made several tributes to one of their most distinguished alumnae. This includes renaming The Life Sciences Lecture Series, which is now called the Barbara McClintock Life Sciences Lecture Series. In addition, her alma mater now offers The Barbara McClintock Graduate Student Award for outstanding senior graduate students studying plant sciences at Cornell.
In 2010, Cornell faculty members celebrated her legacy during a Barbara McClintock library panel discussion. "Ideas just come out of her, and she assumes that you understand everything that she's saying," said a professor of molecular biology and genetics and former dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Cornell. She went on to lament the challenges of keeping up with McClintock's legendary mind. "At the end of the day, my brain, it was just absolutely fried."