by Howard Green*
To paraphrase George Orwell, every person is unique, but some are more unique than others. There has never been anyone like Barbara McClintock in this world, nor ever will be. She was not simply a representative of a type. Some have considered her as an eccentric, others as a heroine of Science, and still others as a model to be imitated. I would like to tell you how I think of her.
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 deliberately chose a solitary life without encumbrances, but she did not reject womanhood. In a feminine way, she once said to me “I cannot fight for myself, but I can fight for others.” In a time of confusion about such matters, it is important to note that Barbara did not fight against herself by choosing a path that was inconsistent with her nature or her capacity. This is why she could, at the end, say “I have lived a wonderful life and I have no regrets about it.” This does not mean that Barbara’s life of isolation protected her from inner storms and passions. On the contrary, she was familiar with periods of depression, sense of futility and, yes, tears of frustration and rage. Yet her final judgment on her life was strongly affirmative.
Science is not a career, and when it is made into one, it risks becoming falsified. As a scientist, Barbara was a prototypic non-careerist. This was not because she restrained a natural impulse to do otherwise, but because she could not imagine science as a vehicle for personal advancement. Barbara was successful in science at an early age and received general recognition at the time. But later, during the fifties and sixties, when she was doing her most original work, she was ignored to such an extent that she did not even want to publish. From time to time, her morale was low, even though she was utterly confident of her most important discovery: the mobility of genetic elements. We are all, unfortunately, dependent on recognition. We grow with it and suffer without it. When transposons were demonstrated in bacteria, yeast and other organisms, Barbara rose to a stratospheric level in the general esteem of the scientific world and honors were showered upon her. But she could hardly bear them. She felt obliged to submit to them: it was not joy or even satisfaction that she experienced; it was martyrdom! To have her work understood and acknowledged was one thing, but to make public appearances and submit to ceremonies was quite another.
Barbara did not permit her inner disturbances to unsettle the course of her life or her work. This was possible only because she was so permeated by sincerity. Her accomplishments in science depended on her respect for the way things were and not on her need to discover something. Some have spoken of Barbara’s way of understanding as that of a mystic and I think there are grounds for this view. For Barbara, Truth had a mystical origin, whether outside or inside herself and she had a deeply respectful attitude toward it. Her slowness in publication was in part because, as she once said to me, “I knew there must be no mistake.” Everyone who knew Barbara knew that if she affirmed something to be so, her verdict would be correct. I felt this very strongly and if I sometimes found it difficult to understand her explanations, I didn’t worry much about it; I was confident of her conclusions. She was a kind of mystic genius, in the sense that she knew things that she could not explain, and so it was sometimes impossible to understand how she knew what she knew.
Her way of comprehending was swift and direct. Her extraordinary grasp of cytology and genetics does not account for her discoveries. These depended on something more, which I will call insight. This is something she had about people, too. She had strong reactions to them and was particularly sensitive to what was not quite right about them. She was not fooled or foolable. Her judgments were not put-downs and had no tinge of malice, but they were based on a no-longer-current way of looking at people and taking their measure. They were not value-free because Barbara had values. Perhaps few people know this, but she was not part of our compassionate age and did not share its acceptance of almost anything. With respect to the formation of young scientists, she didn’t approve of all the tender, loving care accorded them by those in charge. “What’s the fuss about students?” she once asked me. “Let them sink or swim!”
Among her talents was the ability to dominate those rebellious tendencies in herself that were in conflict with what she desired herself to be. She had a Yogi-like ability to control pain. When she went to the dentist she assured him not to worry about inflicting pain because, by an effort of mind, she would not feel any. This piece of information may have raised the dentist’s eyebrows, but the result was as she predicted.
There are some for whom life is mainly serious and there are others for whom life is mainly laughter. Awful are those lives that are all one or all the other. Barbara took life mainly as serious, but she appreciated good laughs and we had many together. These were sometimes provoked by gentle teasing on my part. I enjoyed teasing Barbara and I think she rather liked it, too. Perhaps it was a kind of man-woman interaction. I did much of the teasing during the period of her public martyrdom.
Most of our conversations during the last 35 years took place by telephone. Barbara was wearied by her numerous visitors; many of those who intruded did not understand her need for privacy. She felt best when she was alone in her laboratory-nest. For the most part, I respected that feeling, particularly in her later years. But in June 1992, I made an unannounced visit to Cold Spring Harbor. At first, she was flustered and maybe even a little panicked. We went for a walk together and later sat in her little living room. When it was time for me to leave, she followed me to the door, stepped outside and looked at me intently as I walked away. When I turned round to wave, we stared at each other, both knowing that it was the last time. Only rarely in life does one have the opportunity to say good-bye at the right time.
In the following few months, we talked quite often by telephone. She seemed to be in a state of further decline. A week before her death, I sent her a book on the recent glacial epoch. She began to read it immediately and during our last telephone conversation, she told me with enthusiasm how much she was enjoying it. Her interest in the world and nature was back and I could not detect the feeling of “it’s all over, I’m ready to go” that she had expressed to me so clearly and decisively during the previous months. But I knew it was still there, if submerged, and at the end it surfaced again to Joan Marshak, whose personality and care Barbara so greatly appreciated and who was with her at the end. Barbara had decided that it was time to die and Barbara always did what she wanted.
I cannot explain the basis for our friendship. We were almost a generation apart in age, very different in background and upbringing, in temperament and in habits, even in scientific interests. But we nearly always understood each other and each of us could declare any thoughts without reservations. There was no tinge of interest in our relations: they were entirely gratuitous. I can say that knowing Barbara has been one of the great experiences of my life and the fact that she is gone makes me think of an extinct species or a miraculous creation that will never again be seen in the world. There are scientists whose discoveries greatly transcend their personalities and their humanity. But those in the future who will know of Barbara only her discoveries will know only her shadow. If she had made no important discoveries, I would feel about her almost as I do now. Those of us who knew her will preserve their memory of her uniqueness and marvel at what genes and experience gave to her alone.
* Howard Green is the George Higginson Professor of Cell Biology at Harvard Medical School. His scientific contributions include the development of the cell line 3T3, a general method of assigning human genes to specific chromosomes, the formation of adipose cells in culture, and the growth and differentiation of human keratinocytes. The cultivation of epidermal keratinocytes elaborated in his laboratory permitted the first use of cultured cells for the treatment of human disease.
First published 12 June 1999
Their work and discoveries range from how cells adapt to changes in levels of oxygen to our ability to fight global poverty.
See them all presented here.