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National Library of Medicine

Monday, October 29, 2001

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Kathleen Cravedi
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Papers of Nobel Laureate Barbara McClintock Added to Profiles in Science

(Bethesda, Md.) — It was so valuable that early settlers used it as money and traded it for meat and furs. It was the cause of the 1792 Whiskey Rebellion. It kept the early Colonists from starving. Cars can use it as a fuel. Moonshiners hoard it. And for one woman, Barbara McClintock, the study of the genetics of this product resulted in her winning the 1983 Nobel prize. The object of all this attention? Corn.

Barbara McClintock, Ph.D., is the seventh scientist, and first woman, to be added to National Library of Medicine's (NLM) "Profiles in Science" website ( This site is dedicated to the lives and works of prominent 20th century biomedical scientists, including Nobelists Joshua Lederberg, Julius Axelrod, and Marshall Nirenberg. In an unusual joint effort, the National Library of Medicine is collaborating with the American Philosophical Society — the repository for the McClintock papers — to digitize and make them available over the World Wide Web for use by educators, researchers, and the public.

Barbara McClintock was born June 16, 1902, in Hartford, Connecticut, and received her Ph.D. in botany at Cornell in 1927. She became one of the founders of the field of maize (corn) cytogenetics, the genetic study of maize at the cellular level.

"Barbara McClintock is recognized as one of the most distinguished scientists of the 20th century," said Dr. Alexa McCray, Director of the Profiles in Science Project. In 1944, she became the third woman elected to the National Academy of Sciences. President Nixon awarded McClintock the National Medal of Science and, in 1981, She became the first recipient of a MacArthur Foundation Grant, now known informally as the "genius" grant. In that same year, she was given the Albert and Mary Lasker Award.

Beginning in the late 1920s, McClintock showed how genes in chromosomes move during the breeding of maize plants. Later, during the 1940s and 1950s, McClintock demonstrated how certain genes were responsible for turning on or off physical characteristics, such as the color of leaves or of individual corn kernels. Her theories to explain the suppression or expression of genetic information from one generation of maize plants to the next went counter to the common wisdom of molecular biology prevalent during the 1950s.

In 1957, McClintock received funding from the National Science Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation to study different varieties, or races, of maize in South and Central America. She and her colleagues spent two decades assembling data on differences in South American maize, which were finally published in 1981 as The Chromosomal Constitution of Races of Maize.

In 1983, at the age of 81, she received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for her work on "mobile genetic elements," that is, genetic transposition, or the ability of genes to change position on the chromosome. McClintock was the first woman to receive an unshared Nobel Prize in that category.

The online exhibit features laboratory notes, correspondence, unpublished manuscripts, lecture notes, photographs, charts, illustrations, and audiovisual materials documenting the life and career of Dr. McClintock. Visitors to the McClintock site can view, for example, her handwritten notes from a series of lectures at Caltech University in 1954. Visitors can also see photographs of McClintock during her many years of genetic research at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.

"Profiles in Science" was launched September 1998 by the National Library of Medicine, a part of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. The site is a continuing project and the Library plans to announce each new collection as it is added.

Note to editors: Photographs of Dr. McClintock are available from NLM. Email requests to