Rita Levi-Montalcini – Nobel Prize Winning Neurobiologist

Rita Levi-Montalcini, 2009, Photo: Presidenza della Repubblica (source)

Rita Levi-Montalcini in 2009, Photo credit: Presidenza della Repubblica (source)

During World War II, Rita Levi-Montalcini, as a Jewish woman, was forced to leave her research position at the University of Turin. However, she didn’t leave her research behind. Using homemade instruments, a basic microscope, an incubator built by her brother, and chicken eggs, she spent the war years observing the growth of nerve cells. This clandestine work laid the foundation for her discovery of Nerve Growth Factor which eventually led to receiving the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1986.

Rita Levi was born April 22, 1909 into a wealthy Jewish family in Turin, Italy. She and her twin, Paola, were the youngest of the four children of Adam Levi and Adele Montalcini Levi. The Levi family was well established in Turin, since the Roman empire, and with so many relatives of the same name, Rita, who never married, eventually added her mother’s maiden name to distinguish herself professionally.

Adam Levi was an electrical engineer and an authoritarian with a quick temper. He had definite ideas of what was appropriate for girls, which was training to be good wives and mothers, so after Rita and Paola completed the 4th grade, they were sent to finishing school. Two of Adam’s aunts had doctorate degrees, one in literature and the other in mathematics. They also had unhappy marriages, which Adam attributed to their advanced education.

Rita’s mother Adele, an accomplished artist, was reserved and submissive. Perhaps for this reason, Rita wasn’t interested in marriage. Or perhaps it was because she considered her classes at finishing school “mindless”. Regardless, she had no interest in “children or babies” and “never remotely accepted [her] role as wife or mother.” Ever since her beloved nurse, Giovanna, died of stomach cancer, she had wanted to be a doctor, but saw no hope of attending medical school.

Museum of Human Anatomy, University of Turin (source)

Museum of Human Anatomy, University of Turin (source)

Finally at the age of 20, Rita had the courage to tell her father about her desire to be a physician. Although he disagreed, with her mother’s support she convinced him to hire tutors to help her prepare for the entrance exams to the university. Studying with her cousin Eugenia, they hired two tutors, one for mathematics and science, another for Latin and Greek. They studied subjects such as history and literature alone. After eight months of study, both Rita and Eugenia passed their exams and in 1930 Rita entered the University of Turin as a medical student.

At the university, Rita studied under another quick-tempered man, Giuseppe Levi, a leading histologist. Along with Rita, two other students of Levi went on to receive Nobel Prizes, Salvador Luria and Renato Dulbecco. Rita finished her degrees in 1936 and began to specialize in neurology, now working as Levi’s assistant, but in 1938 that changed when a new law forced Jews out of the university and professional jobs. Rather than emigrate from Italy, Rita’s family chose to remain.

Viktor Hamburger c. 1933 (source)

Viktor Hamburger c. 1933 (source)

For a time, Rita practiced medicine among the poor, but she couldn’t write prescriptions. Then one day she read a journal article written by Victor Hamburger, one of the founders of developmental neurobiology, who happened to do research using chick embryos. This gave Rita the idea to start her own home laboratory. When Giuseppe Levi joined Rita in her work, her family’s home also became a meeting place for his other students.

In spite of her brother Gino’s name being on a most-wanted list for resistance activities, she was able to keep her activities hidden. But, when bombing began in Turin in 1941, the Levi family moved to the country and Rita had to rebuild her lab there. Supplies were more difficult to get, so she often rode her bicycle through the countryside asking farmers for eggs for “her babies.” When the country was invaded in 1943, the family moved again and using forged documents, found a place to hide in Florence, where they remained until Italy was liberated in August 1944.

Rita was unable to publish her research in Italy during the war because her name was Jewish, so she published in Belgian and Swiss journals. This time it was Rita who came to the attention of Victor Hamburger. In 1947, Hamburger was the director of the zoology department at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, and after reading about her experiments asked Rita to visit for a semester. Some of her results contradicted his, and he wanted to know which was accurate. When she was able to duplicate her results in the laboratory, Hamburger offered her a research position. Rita accepted and remained there for almost three decades.

Levi-Montalcini and Hamburger were a good match. He recognized that she brought expertise in neurology that he didn’t have, and he supplied experimental embryology expertise. By 1953, Rita’s research had convinced her of the existence of some substance which caused nerve fibers to grow and that without it they would die. She now needed the help of a biochemist, so she began working with Stanley Cohen, a post-doctoral fellow at Washington University.

Stanley Cohen (source)

Stanley Cohen (source)

Once again, Rita had a good working partner in both style and substance. Together she and Cohen isolated Nerve Growth Factor (NGF) first by using mouse tumors, then snake venom, and finally the salivary glands of male mice. They were successful, but ultimately, Hamburger couldn’t justify keeping a full-time biochemist on staff in a zoology department, so in 1959 Cohen moved on to Vanderbilt University, where he was able to isolate Epidermal Growth Factor (EGF). Levi-Montalcini and Cohen shared the 1986 Nobel Prize in Physiology for their results, discovering NGF and EGF, respectively.

Without Cohen, Rita felt at loose ends. She was also homesick, especially for Paola. In 1961, she received a National Science Foundation grant which allowed her to open the Research Center of Neurobiology in Rome. From 1961 to 1969, she alternated spending six months in Rome with six months in St. Louis. In 1969, with the help of a friend, she was able to open the Laboratory of Cellular Biology which allowed her to return to Italy full time.

Although Rita Levi-Montalcini officially retired from the Laboratory of Cellular Biology in 1979, she continued to guest lecture. She also stayed active in science and politics. In 2001 she was appointed  Senator for Life by the President of Italy, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, and in 2002, she founded the European Brain Research Institute. After a long and very full life, Rita Levi-Montalcini died on December 30, 2012 at the age of 103.

Resources
Nobel Prize Women in Science by Sharon Bertsch McGrayne
Rita Levi-Montalcini“, Jewish Women’s Archive
Paola Levi-Montalcini“, Jewish Women’s Archive
Rita Levi-Montalcini“, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved April 23, 2015

Read about other Famous Women Mathematicians and Scientists.

Sophie Germain: Mathematical Genius Emerging from the French Revolution

The Storming of the Bastille, artist unknown (source)

The Storming of the Bastille, artist unknown (source)

Born on April 1, 1776 in Paris, Sophie Germain grew up during a turbulent time. She was 13 years old in 1789 when the Bastille fell and life on the streets became very dangerous. Her parents, Ambroise-Franҫois and Marie-Madeline Germain, were wealthy. Ambroise was a merchant (some sources say silk, some say goldsmith) and elected as a deputy to the Estates-General. Sophie and her sisters would surely have heard intelligent conversation in their home, especially politics and philosophy.

The Germains were able to keep their daughters safe, but it did require remaining indoors most of the time. To keep herself occupied, Sophie turned to her father’s library. It wasn’t long before she ran across the story of the death of Archimedes in a book called The History of Mathematics by Jean-Étienne Montucla. Legend has it that Archimedes was so engrossed in a geometry problem that he didn’t realize Roman soldiers were about to kill him. Sophie thought that geometry must be very fascinating to cause Archimedes to ignore a threat to his life, so she decided to study math. This idea, however, didn’t please her parents.

Sophie Germain (source)

Sophie Germain (source)

Studying math and science wasn’t thought appropriate for women and girls except among the aristocrats. There wasn’t a need for it and some thought it harmful to a girls mind. Her parents did everything they could think of to discourage Sophie. When they forbid her to study these subjects, she appeared to comply, but waited until they went to sleep and studied by candlelight. When they discovered what she was doing, they took away her candles, put out her fire, and took away her clothes after she went to bed, so that she would sleep. She simply kept a stash of hidden candles, wrapped herself in quilts and continued. Even when it was cold enough to freeze the ink in the inkwell, they would find her asleep over her books. Finally, they gave in and let her choose her subjects.

Sophie studied philosophy, classics and math, even learning Latin and Greek to be able to read Newton, Euler and Virgil. She worked through all the math books she found in her father’s library eventually moving on to differential calculus.

The École Polytechnique opened in 1794, when Sophie was 18. Because she was a woman, she couldn’t attend lectures, but she borrowed lecture notes from friends. She also began to submit her work to Joseph Lagrange under the name Monsieur Le Blanc. When Lagrange found out her true identity, he supported her and encouraged her to correspond with other mathematicians.

Historic building of the École Polytechnique by Juan Antonio Cordero (source)

Historic building of the École Polytechnique by Juan Antonio Cordero (source)

Probably the most famous and accomplished mathematician with whom Sophie corresponded was Karl Friedrich Gauss, considered by many to be the “greatest mathematician since antiquity.” Again, she chose to use the name M. Le Blanc and Gauss was impressed with her work in number theory. They corresponded for several years and then Sophie became concerned with Gauss’s safety. He lived in a German town which was soon to be occupied by French troops. Knowing his devotion to mathematics and thinking of Archimedes, she contacted a family friend in the French army and asked him to ensure Gauss’s safety. He did, but Gauss was confused because he didn’t know Sophie Germain by her real name.

Karl Friedrich Gauss c. 1887 by Gottlieb Biermann (source)

Karl Friedrich Gauss c. 1887 by Gottlieb Biermann (source)

The confusion was soon sorted out via correspondence, and much to Sophie’s pleasure and surprise, Gauss was delighted. “How can I describe my astonishment and admiration on seeing my esteemed correspondent M LeBlanc metamorphosed into this celebrated person. . . when a woman, because of her sex, our customs and prejudices, encounters infinitely more obstacles than men in familiarising herself with knotty problems, yet overcomes these fetters and penetrates that which is most hidden, she doubtless has the most noble courage, extraordinary talent, and superior genius.” (emphasis mine)

Sophie contributed significantly to number theory including the foundation 20th century mathematicians would build on in attempting to solve Fermat’s Last Theorem, but she also became interested in physics. In 1808, Ernst Chaldni gave a demonstration before the Paris Academy of Sciences on vibrating surfaces. The experimental results were intriguing and caught the attention of Napoléon. He convinced the Academy to run a contest to “give the mathematical theory of the vibration of an elastic surface and to compare the theory to experimental evidence.” Sophie decided to enter.

One of Sophie’s challenges was her lack of rigor in her mathematics, probably due to her lack of formal education in the field. This was part of the problem that caused the rejection of her submission to the contest in 1811. But Sophie didn’t give up. The contest was extended and Sophie submitted another paper in 1813. This time she was awarded an honorable mention, although there were still problems with her calculations.

Finally, in 1816, Sophie submitted a paper under her own name which won the prize. She was the first woman to win a prize from the Academy, but was still unable to attend its sessions. (The only women admitted were the wives of the members!) However, now she was allowed to attend lectures at the École Polytechnique. Sophie continued her work on elasticity, publishing her results in 1821 and a refined version in 1826.

Although Sophie’s work was always affected by her lack of formal education, she was seen  as ingenious and earned the respect of many of her colleagues. Gauss was sufficiently impressed to recommend to the University of Göttingen that she be awarded an honorary degree. Sadly, she died before this could happen.

In 1829, Sophie learned that she had breast cancer. Although some of her philosophical works were published posthumously, she ironically finished her last mathematical publication to the sounds of the Second French Revolution in the summer of 1830. On June 27, 1831, Sophie Germain died at her home in Paris.

Sophie Germain's headstone, photo by Miek Messerschmidt (source)

Sophie Germain’s headstone, photo by Miek Messerschmidt (source)

Read about other Famous Women Mathematicians and Scientists.

Resources
Celebrating Women in Mathematics and Science by The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM)
“Sophie Germain” by Mary Gray in Complexities: Women in Mathematics, ed. Bettye Anne Case and Anne M. Leggett
Women in Mathematics by Lynn Osen
Women in Science by H. J. Mozans
Women in Science: Antiquity Through the Nineteenth Century : a Biographical Dictionary with Annotated Bibliography by Marilyn Bailey Ogilvie

The Tragic Life of Clara Immerwahr

Clara Immerwahr

Clara Immerwahr (source)

Clara Immerwahr was brilliant . . . with bad taste in men. But Clara’s bad choice translated into a very tragic story.

Clara was the youngest of four children in a comfortable, cultured family. They spent most of the year on the family farm and winters in Breslau with Clara’s grandmother. She and her sisters were tutored privately and attended a girls’ school located in her grandmother’s home.

Although her sisters wanted to marry, Clara bristled at the mention of the “prospective sphere of women’s occupations.” She was interested in natural science and had a desire to be financially independent. When her mother died in 1890, her father turned operation of the farm over to Clara’s sister Elli and her husband and moved with Clara to Breslau. There she attended a teacher’s seminary where the principal recognized her abilities and gave her a copy of Conversations on Chemistry by Jane Marcet. 

After completing her teacher training, Clara worked as a governess, but she still had a desire for more training in science, specifically chemistry. Her father’s university degree was in chemistry and he was delighted to support and help her.

By 1896, women were allowed to attend university lectures at Breslau as visitors, but Clara continued to fight for permission to take the qualifying exam for admittance into the doctoral program. In 1898, she became the first woman to pass the exam. Then on December 12, 1900, she achieved another first when she graduated magna cum laude with a Ph.D. in chemistry, becoming the first woman to receive this degree from a German university.

In spite of her achievement, it was still a boys club. Clara was able to work as an assistant to Richard Abegg, her doctoral advisor, do some research and give lectures to women’s organizations and schools, but she was limited because of her gender.

Around this time, Clara became reacquainted with Fritz Haber. Fritz had proposed to her several years before, but she had turned him down. At the time she was focused on her own studies. When they met again in the spring of 1901, the flame was rekindled and they married in August of that year.

Haber had developed quite a reputation. He was respected for his work in chemistry and had developed a method to convert nitrogen in the atmosphere into compounds that could be used in fertilizer. This method revolutionized agriculture and he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1918.

Fritz Haber

Fritz Haber in 1919 (source)

Fritz was a professor at the Technological University in Karlsruhe. He was ambitious and frequently brought home guests unannounced. Clara thought at first that she would be able to continue her research, but the demands of homemaking and soon motherhood proved too much. However, she did collaborate with Fritz on his work and on a textbook about thermodynamics. He dedicated the book to Clara with thanks for “quiet collaboration.”

In spite of this, he had little respect for Clara’s work. As a workaholic, he also had little time for Clara and their son, Hermann. He traveled frequently and had affairs with other women.

Fritz Haber’s star continued to rise and in 1911, he was appointed head of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin. This honor came with a position as professor at the University of Berlin and membership in the Prussian Academy of Science. In spite of these honors, he may have felt some pressure to prove his patriotism.

Both Fritz and Clara were Jewish and had converted to Christianity in 1893 and 1897, respectively. Antisemitism was prevalent, including a ban preventing Jews from being officers in the army, and even very talented people of Jewish birth came under suspicion.

When the war broke out in 1914, Fritz volunteered his services and soon came up with a horrifying idea. He concentrated his work on poison gas and suggested that chlorine gas could be released to drift over the enemy’s position, disabling them without bombardment.

Clara was appalled and on more than one occasion begged him to stop his research on chemical warfare. She opposed him openly and he accused her in public of treasonous statements. When Clara received her Ph.D., she took an oath to “never in speech or writing to teach anything that is contrary to my beliefs. To pursue truth and to advance the dignity of science to the heights which it deserves.” She believed that Fritz had perverted the ideals of science.

There were also German commanders who thought the use of poisonous gas was “unchivalrous” or “repulsive,” but might be necessary if it meant victory. The first gas attack occurred on April 22, 1915 at Ypres in Belgium. After waiting for the winds to be just right, 168 tons of chlorine gas were released and drifted over the Allied troops, killing over half of them within minutes. A second attack was launched two days later.

Fritz was promoted to captain and returned to Berlin to a party in his honor on May 2, the day before he was to go to the Eastern front to oversee similar attacks. Early in the morning after the party, Clara took her husband’s revolver into the garden and shot herself. Her son heard the shot and she died in his arms. The next day Fritz went to the Russian front leaving 13-year old Hermann to deal with his mother’s suicide alone.

Since the 1970s, Clara’s life has received more attention. She is seen as an example of protest against the misuse of science. The most prestigious award given by the German section of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War is called the Clara Immerwahr award; the University of Dortmund has a mentoring project for women named for her; and Clara is the subject of Tony Harrison’s play Square Rounds. It may have taken a little time, but she hasn’t been forgotten.

Resources
Jewish Women’s Archive: Clara Immerwahr
Smithsonian Magazine: Past Imperfect: Fritz Haber’s Experiments in Life and Death

Read about other Women in Mathematics and Science.

Harriet Boyd Hawes – Archaeologist

Harriet Boyd Hawes

Harriet Boyd Hawes

“Riding on mule-back in attire like that shown in her photograph, accompanied by the faithful Aristides (a native of northwestern Greece) with his mother as chaperon, she was apparently perfectly unconscious – in the best American tradition – of doing anything unusual or courageous.” From the Introduction to Archaeology: Memoirs of a Pioneer Excavator in Crete by Harriet Boyd Hawes.

When Harriet Boyd finally decided that she wanted to study Greek archaeology at the source, in Greece, it must have been frustrating to find that her instructors didn’t think she should get her hands dirty. They expected female archaeologists to become librarians or museum curators, but she had always been more inclined to action than academics. So she set off to find her own site to excavate.

Early Life

Born on October 11, 1871, Harriet was the youngest of five children and the only girl.  Her mother died while she was still an infant and whatever her father did to try to “rouse domestic tastes” and “induce womanliness”, according to Harriet’s daughter, was useless against the influence of her brothers. Her doll house was taken over by a “military coup”, she would “scout” for the boys and took delight in pyrotechnic shows. They also had an area in their home where they kept pet squirrels. It was a happy, rowdy home and Harriet loved it.

One person who had a particular influence on Harriet was her brother Alex. Eleven years her senior he was a parental figure of sorts. He was especially influential in her love of and decision to study the Classics at Smith College. When he died her senior year it was a very sad time for her, but she graduated in 1892 and had to make a decision about what to do with her life.

For the next four years, Harriet taught school, first in a boarding school for impoverished students in North Carolina and then in a finishing school. When she became dissatisfied with teaching, she decided to take a tour of Europe. She was able to do this in part because of her inheritance from Alex. In this way he helped to set her on the path to her destiny.

Excavations in Crete

The sources I read didn’t give a name, but supposedly Harriet met a man in Europe who challenged her not to study Classics in Europe or America, but to go right to the source. Also, as a student at Smith, she heard a lecture by Amelia Edwards about her travels up the Nile. (Edwards wrote a book titled A Thousand Miles up the Nile which became a best seller about her adventures in Egypt and Egyptian archeology.) At that time she became intrigued by archaeology. Now she decided to combine the two, took the man’s advice and, in 1896, enrolled at the American School of Classical Studies in Athens, Greece.

Map of Crete showing major archaeological sites, including Gournia.

Map of Crete showing major archaeological sites, including Gournia. (Author: Bibi Saint-Pol, Wikimedia Commons)

Her graduate studies went well, but as she advanced she wanted to take part in field work. As I mentioned, the common expectation for women in archaeology was that they would work as librarians or curators. Harriet had already made a bit of a stir by traveling to Greece without a chaperone and riding around Athens on her bicycle, so when she couldn’t get an excavation site through the school she decided to strike out on her own.

Jug found at Kavousi (source)

Jug found at Kavousi (source)

In the spring of 1900, Harriet decided to go to Crete and look for her own site. This involved traveling around and talking to farmers and villagers about the artifacts they found. She obtained all the necessary permissions to excavate and decided on Kavousi. With the help of hired workers, she excavated baskets of artifacts, a house, a number of Iron Age tombs, a small “castle” and one 3000 year old undisturbed bee-hive tomb. It might not have compared to the finds Arthur Evans was currently finding at Knossos, but it was her excavation. She returned to the US and published her work in the American Journal of Archaeology.

Returning the next year, Harriet made the discovery that she would be primarily remembered for, Gournia. After several discouraging weeks of searching for a new site, they were led to a place with “old walls” by a local man named George Petakis. Deciding that it looked promising, Harriet sent the men ahead the next day while she took care of mail. When she arrived, the site was buzzing with excitement. All the men were eager to show them what they had found and it was clear they had their site. Three days after first seeing Gournia, she sent a telegram saying “Discovered Gournia Mycenaean site, street, houses, pottery, bronzes, stone jars.”

Gournia consisted of a small acropolis surrounded by paved roads, more than 70 houses and “the small palace of the local governor.”  It was a town of workers and artisans with evidence of weaving, fishing, bronze-casting, and the making of pottery of different types. They discovered pottery ranging in age from around 2500 to 1000 BCE. Gournia was rich with history. All of this provided three years work for Harriet and her crew, 1901, 1903, and 1904.

Gournia, Vasiliki and other prehistoric sites on the isthmus of Hierapetra, Crete; excavations of the Wells-Houston-Cramp expeditions, 1901, 1903, 1904. By Harriet Boyd Hawes, Blanche E. Williams, Richard B. Seager, Edith H. Hall Philadelphia, The American Exploration Society, Free Museum of Science and Art, 1908

Pottery found at Gournia, Vasiliki and other prehistoric sites on the isthmus of Hierapetra, Crete by Boyd’s team. (source)

Harriet had a talent for organizing, but she also had a desire to share her passion. She took on a number of younger archaeologists such as Blanche Williams, Edith Hall, and Richard Seager. And since excavating is a seasonal activity, she also taught Greek archaeology at Smith and gave lectures for the Archaeological Institute of America becoming a recognized authority on Crete.

Nursing

Harriet took time out from her life regardless of where she was to be of service through nursing. Her talent for organizing extended to field hospitals. In 1897, she took time off from school to nurse soldiers during the Greco-Turkish War. In 1915, she took supplies and relief to wounded Serbian soldiers at Corfu. The next year she went to France.

Then in 1917, she spoke to an alumnae group at Smith about war relief. The first Smith Relief Unit sailed for France in August of that year led by Harriet and consisting of doctors, professors, social workers and of course a few archaeologists.

Personal Life

Gournia was the last excavation that Harriet directed. Her active life was complicated by the fact that at the age of 35, she decided to marry. During one of her trips to Greece, she met and fell in love with Charles Henry Hawes a British anthropologist. They married on May 3, 1906 and had two children, Alexander Boyd Hawes and Mary Nesbit Hawes.

Even though she gave up field work, she didn’t give up archaeology. In addition to publishing the results of the Gournia excavation, she and Charles wrote a book together called Crete: The Forerunner of Greece. She also continued teaching, lecturing and nursing.

Harriet did consider having a family an “interruption” in her active life, but she said that whether or not a woman was happy in this decision would “depend largely on her having anticipated it as part of the Good Life.”

Harriet Boyd Hawes was a pioneering woman in archaeology and should be remembered as such. She died on March 31, 1943 at the age of 73.

Gournia ruins Photo credit: Lourakis, Wikimedia Commons

Gournia ruins Photo credit: Lourakis at en.wikipedia

 

Resources
Ladies of the Field: Early Women Archaeologists and Their Search for Adventure by Amanda Adams
American Journal of Archaeology: Excavations at Kavousi, Crete, in 1900  by Harriet A. Boyd

Smith College: Despair in War-Torn France Eased After Smith Women Arrived in 1917

Breaking Ground, Breaking Tradition: Bryn Mawr and the First Generation of Women Archaeologists “Edith Hayward Hall Dohan (1877-1943)

This is the video on YouTube where I first heard of Harriet Boyd. The focus is primarily on Knossos, but the video is great.
The Ancient World: The Minoans with Bettany Hughes

These two articles are behind a subscription wall at JSTOR. However, you can register free and read three articles every fourteen days and her writing is delightful.
Archaeology: Memoirs of a Pioneer Excavator in Crete by Harriet Boyd Hawes
Archaeology: Part II Memoirs of a Pioneer Excavator in Crete by Harriet Boyd Hawes

Read about other Famous Women in Science

Barbara McClintock – Nobel Prize Delayed

Barbara McClintock c. 1983

Barbara McClintock c. 1983

By the 1920s in the United States, many women were going to college. In fact the percentage of women attending universities would decline and not rise to the same level again until the late 1970s. Thirty to forty percent of graduate students in the 1920s were women and 12 to 15 percent of science and engineering PhDs were women, but getting a graduate degree and getting a job were two different things. Most of these women ended up teaching in women’s colleges. Coeducational universities, government, and industry jobs were reserved for men, so for a woman such as Barbara McClintock who wanted to do scientific research the going was difficult.

At the time little was known about genes and their role in heredity. Some scientists didn’t even accept the ideas of Gregor Mendel (remember smooth and wrinkled, green and yellow peas from high school.) By the time McClintock received her PhD in 1927, she had already done ground breaking work in genetics and gathered around her a group of men who wanted to work with her. Most of them already had their degrees, but recognized in her a kind of insight into the cell that others didn’t have. George Beadle once complained to the department chair at Cornell, Rollin A. Emerson, that McClintock interpreted his data more quickly than he did. Emerson responded that he (Beadle) should be glad that someone could explain it. In spite of this recognition, she was an instructor not a professor and would spend years in low paying jobs.

Barbara McClintock was born in 1902, the third daughter of Dr. Thomas Henry McClintock and Sara Handy McClintock. Thomas was a homeopathic physician and Sara had been raised in affluence until she defied her parents to marry Thomas. Barbara’s parents had wanted a boy and her mother seemed to feel that it was somehow her fault that her first three children were girls. This created a distance between her and Barbara that would last a lifetime. Her mother also may have had difficulty understanding a daughter who wasn’t interested in “girly things.” In spite of the fact that the longed for boy was born two years later, Barbara’s father raised her as a boy. She took to it well, loved athletics and nature, and had little patience with the way other girls wanted to play. There must have been early indications of her strong will. When she was four months old, her parents changed her name from Eleanor to Barbara, because Eleanor was too “sweet” a name for their baby girl.

McClintock_family_1907

From left to right: Mignon, Tom, Barbara and Marjorie McClintock (source)

Barbara never felt mistreated by her mother, but she wasn’t supported either. The tension between them and the stress of raising four young children prompted her mother to frequently send Barbara to stay with an aunt and uncle. This uncle sold fish from the back of a wagon and Barbara loved to go with him. He taught her to understand mechanical things and to love nature.

Although Sara gave in to Thomas when he indulged Barbara and told a neighbor to mind her own business when she wanted to teach her “womanly” things, she drew the line at letting her daughters pursue higher education. She had talked Barbara’s oldest sister out of accepting a full scholarship to Vassar, believing that too much education would make her less likely to find a husband. When Barbara graduated from high school, her father was serving in the army in Europe and Sara put her foot down. Unable to go to college, Barbara got a job in an employment agency and studied incessantly at the library in the evenings and on weekends. Fortunately, when Thomas returned from the war, he immediately let Barbara enroll at Cornell in the agriculture department where tuition was free.

McClintock_family

From left to right: Mignon, Tom, Barbara, Marjorie and Sara at the piano (source)

Barbara thrived at Cornell. She was thoroughly modern, bobbing her hair, smoking cigarettes, wearing pants even when she wasn’t in the field, and even playing banjo with a jazz group. She was small and slender with a big laugh and a good sense of humor. Later Barbara would be seen as something of a loner, but many things and relationships just fell by the wayside because of her intense involvement with her work. She always had a few good friends and good relationships with her family. In spite of pressure from her mother and her steady beau, she made a decision not to marry knowing that she had a dominant personality and a drive to work.

After receiving her degree in 1923, Barbara continued as a graduate. For her research Barbara worked with the maize plant and identified its 10 chromosomes and matched them with visible traits. She created a type of map locating the areas that determined whether or not a plant would have purple, waxy kernels for example. Most of her fellow students and colleagues didn’t understand the massive amounts of data, microscope work, and probability analysis she had done. Fortunately, similar work had been done on the fruit fly by Thomas Hunt Morgan at Columbia University and one of his former students, Marcus Rhoades, came to Cornell as a professor. Rhoades took on the task of explaining Barbara’s work. Both Rhoades and Morgan would be supporters of McClintock throughout her career.

After graduating at Cornell, Barbara stayed on as an instructor for a few years at a level far below her colleagues, in order to continue her research. When she was unable to find a job as a professor, Barbara moved from one research grant to another over the next few years developing a reputation as one of the best in the world in maize genetics, but never being welcomed as a professor. At Cal Tech, she was not allowed in the faculty club and only Linus Pauling welcomed her into his lab. In spite of this, Barbara loved the work and was thrilled to finally be offered a job at the University of Missouri as an assistant professor working with Lewis Stadler in 1936.

Barbara McClintock with George P. Redei in 1978 (source)

Barbara McClintock with George P. Redei in 1978 (source)

The environment at Missouri was very conventional and the culture shock went both ways. Eventually, the administration came to see Barbara as a troublemaker. In 1941, she asked the dean if she would ever be promoted to a permanent position. He told her that if Stadler ever left, she would probably be fired. It was the last straw and Barbara took a “leave of absence” and told him she wouldn’t be back. After so many years of trying to get a job commensurate with her experience and expertise, she gave up. But she still cared about her corn and her research.

In desperation, Barbara contacted Marcus Rhoades and asked where he planted his corn. He told her Cold Spring Harbor, a research center established in 1890 for evolution research. She managed to get an invitation to plant her corn for the summer, then a temporary position, then finally support through the Carnegie Foundation for a permanent position. It was perfect. She could focus solely on her research without worrying about teaching or the politics of the administration.

Although Barbara’s work had already been incorporated into textbooks and would appear in books such as Great Experiments in Biology (Gabriel and Fogel) and Classic Papers in Genetics (ed. James A. Peters), Cold Spring Harbor is where she did the work that finally earned her the Nobel Prize. In 1929, working with a graduate student, Harriet Creighton, they had proved that genes were carried on chromosomes and that the exchange of chromosomal parts created variety in the species. Barbara also had seen evidence that genes could move on a chromosome and between chromosomes, but she needed proof. After six years of research at Cold Spring Harbor, she had her proof. Genes didn’t have to have a fixed position. She also discovered an activator gene, one that could turn another gene on and off, and a gene that could cause the activator gene to move, causing another gene to turn off. Today this is called genetic transposition and the moving gene is sometimes called a “jumping” gene.

McClintock in Mexico in 1959

McClintock in Mexico in 1959

Barbara’s research was unfortunately 15 – 20 year before its time. Many in the scientific community ignored her or thought she was crazy. In the genetics community, no one thought she was crazy, but her research was hard to follow and understand. Many scientists still held to the belief that the structure of chromosomes was stable and fixed. Frustrated she finally quit publishing in 1953. She never quit collecting date and began to see evidence of transposition in other species. Barbara even took a couple of years to go to Latin America to train cytologists and to study indigenous maize varieties and the geographic distribution of specific chromosomes.

Finally in the 1960s and 70s the scientific community began to catch up with McClintock. James Shapiro and others found transposable elements in bacteria and other species. People began flocking to Barbara’s door to learn from her and the awards began to come. Then in 1983, she heard the announcement on the radio that she had been awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine and that the Nobel committee called her discovery “one of two great discoveries of our time in genetics.” (The other was the discovery of the structure of DNA.) The Prize was unshared and praised throughout the scientific community. The recognition was long awaited.

Barbara continued her work schedule, reading voraciously in many different areas, and continuing her exercise routine. As she approached 90 years old, she even slowed down to an 8-9 hour work day. After finally being recognized for her great contributions, Barbara McClintock died of natural causes at her home on Sept. 2, 1992.

Resources
Nobel Prize Women in Science by Sharon Bertsch McGrayne

Read about other Famous Women in Math and Science