The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1983
Born: 16 June 1902, Hartford, CT, USA
Died: 2 September 1992, Huntington, NY, USA
Affiliation at the time of the award: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, Cold Spring Harbor, NY, USA
Prize motivation: "for her discovery of mobile genetic elements."
Prize share: 1/1
Barbara McClintock grew up in Connecticut and New York in the United States. Her family had little money, so her interest in research was viewed with skepticism. It was more important for her to marry, her family thought. Despite this, with her father's support, Barbara began studying at Cornell's College of Agriculture in 1919, and her studies are where her interest remained. She never married, choosing to devote her life to research instead. She was shy and anything but a careerist, but at the same time she also realized the importance of what she had achieved, not least of all in her role as an example for other women.
Many characteristics of organisms are determined by heredity - that is, by their genes - which are stored in the chromosomes inside their cells' nuclei. Barbara McClintock studied corn's hereditary characteristics, for example the different colors of its kernels. She studied how these characteristics are passed down through generations and linked this to changes in the plants' chromosomes. During the 1940s and 1950s Barbara McClintock proved that genetic elements can sometimes change position on a chromosome and that this causes nearby genes to become active or inactive.