The McClintock Renaissance and the Nobel Prize, 1978-1992

McClintock's work with junior scientists and graduate students persuaded her that she had finally found colleagues who appreciated her work. She had given up trying to convince geneticists that they should pay attention to her theories on genetic control. As she wrote to the British geneticist J. R. S. Fincham in 1973, "I stopped publishing detailed reports long ago when I realized, and acutely, the extent of disinterest and lack of confidence in the conclusions I was drawing from the studies." She announced she would follow her own research rather than seek the approval of her peers. As she wrote to maize geneticist Oliver Nelson in 1973, "Over the years I have found that it is difficult if not impossible to bring to consciousness of another person the nature of his tacit assumptions when, by some special experiences, I have been made aware of them. This became painfully evident to me in my attempts during the 1950s to convince geneticists that the action of genes had to be and was controlled. It is now equally painful to recognize the fixity of assumptions that many persons hold on the nature of controlling elements in maize and the manners of their operation. One must await the right time for conceptual change."

McClintock's work, never forgotten, came back to the fore in the 1960s. Her theories of genetic control bore formal similarities to the theories of genetic regulation put forth by French geneticists Fran├žois Jacob and Jacques Monod. But her discovery of genetic transposition seemed much more prescient and important. Beginning in the early 1970s, molecular biologists found transposition in bacteria and viruses, and later in yeast. Transposition was involved in the transfer among bacteria of genes conferring resistance to antibiotics, in certain kinds of viral infections, and in other basic biological processes. Links were made between transposition and cancer, immunology, and genetic engineering. Transposition, now described at the molecular level, seemed to be everywhere. The promise of genetic engineering in the 1970s and 1980s--a laboratory version of the research McClintock practiced with maize from her garden--also catalyzed interest in her early work.

In May 1971, President Richard M. Nixon awarded McClintock the National Medal of Science. "I have read [explanations of your scientific work] and I want you to know that I do not understand them," Nixon confessed to the scientists to whom he had awarded the medals. "But I want you to know, too, that because I do not understand them, I realize how enormously important their contributions are to this Nation. That, to me, is the nature of science to the unsophisticated people."

In a few short years, McClintock received institutional recognition of her work. In 1978, she was given the Rosenstiel Award for Basic Medical Research from Brandeis University. McClintock became the first recipient of a MacArthur Foundation Grant, now known informally as the "genius" grant in 1981. In that same year, she was also given the Albert and Mary Lasker Award. 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, for her discovery of genetic transposition. McClintock was the first woman to receive an unshared Nobel Prize in that category. "Many people have asked me how I responded to the obvious negative attitude of others," she wrote in unpublished notes that she prepared for her Nobel acceptance speech. "At first I was surprised that the phenomenon [of controlling elements] was so unacceptable... If they had had the same fantastic experiences with the maize plant as I was having, they would have drawn the same conclusion. The evidence and logic were incontestable." Viewers can read these unpublished notes in the Documents section.

During her final years, McClintock spent much time in the spotlight, especially after Evelyn Fox Keller's 1983 book, A Feeling for the Organism, brought McClintock's story to the public. She remained a regular presence in the Cold Spring Harbor community, and gave informal talks on mobile genetic elements and the history of genetics research for the benefit of junior scientists, many of whom were youngsters when she retired in 1967. Viewers can see the original notes for these talks in the Documents section.

McClintock died near Cold Spring Harbor, in Huntington, New York on September 2, 1992, at the age of 90.