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Barbara McClintock - 21 October 1983

My wife gets up in the morning about two hours before I do. This arrangement has many advantages. One is that I don’t have to feel an early surge of guilt from watching her go through her unfailing routine of 20 minutes pre-breakfast exercises.

Another is I don’t have to watch the yoghurt being brewed. I come from a family that would have taken a very dim view of yoghurt for breakfast, even if we knew what it was. But the best thing is by the time I’ve come alive, the newspaper is ready for me. The whole paper has been read and done with by the part of the first part and it lies there, rumpled, but for me alone.

Well, the other morning the front page had been, erm, lost and then folded over so that I saw the bottom half and the photograph of a sweet old lady with a face which looked like an apple wearing granny glasses. The headline was hidden from view, and so was the caption under the photograph, so that I had to guess who the old lady was and what she was doing there.

I resisted the natural impulse to find out, and this took me back to a time, must have been during a presidential election year, when we were sitting around one summer evening with a bunch of friends looking at the latest copy of one of the weekly news magazines which displayed on the cover, the faces of six men running for the presidency.

The talk, that grew out of this meditation was not political, it was offhand psychological or, you might say, the demonstration of group emotion.

Luckily, I can’t remember which year it was or who the candidates were but the sort of comment that sprang up from the males and females present were such as "I have never trusted so and so, he has shifty eyes", or, about another man, "I know he is able but he is smug".

Now why did anyone know that A was able, or that B was not to be trusted, because we knew the names that went with the faces, and we knew the political record of all of them.

I must say at once, that my own prejudices were as active as anybody’s. But this back and forth, instant character analysis led me, on the next evening, to an interesting experiment. I clipped from various magazines around the place photographs of a dozen faces or so, none of them sufficiently well-known to be recognised by anyone in our group. Some were no doubt famous in their own country, some were anonymous people in the news for one reason or another.

Since I was the initiator of this mean game, I, of course, secretly noted down the name and profession of each of them, pasted the dozen faces on a large piece of paper and numbered them. I then made a list, unnumbered, of the professions of the lot, inscribed in bold capitals on another piece of paper which was planted in the middle of the round table at which we sat.

Pencils out. team, and now, assign to each number his matching profession. Well, at the end I don’t believe anyone had a better score than 20% right. The sort of thing the group was faced with was the revelation that number six, say, chosen by three people as a French novelist was, in fact, a Chicago truck driver.

A face confidently assigned by several of us to the one murderer on the list was a judge on the international court of justice of the Hague, and so on.

I repulse any fleeting thought you may have that my friends were retarded or of subnormal intelligence. As I now recall, one was the chief account executive of a prominent advertising firm, his wife, an artist, another was a lawyer, his wife was the daughter of a literary Boston family, another wife also an artist, superb cook, immensely competent housewife and fluent in English, French and Italian.

The moral is surely no more subtle than that contained in two famous tags. The one which said, "We see in a work of art what we bring to it", and, more to the point, as William Shakespeare usually was, "There is no art to read the mind's construction in the face".

Anyway, this little experiment brought new weight to bear on the contention of my oldest friend – who spent over 50 years in and around politics, starting as a youthful poll watcher – his contention that most people do not sit down like a great judge and balance this man’s view of the issues against that man’s. They vote for a man because they like his eyes, or they don’t vote for him because they can’t stand the way he does his hair.

Well, we are about now to unfold that morning newspaper to see who is the little old lady, the apple wearing glasses. My immediate guess was that she was the brave grandmother of a marine killed in Lebanon or the day's winner of a million-dollar lottery, at any rate the beneficiary of some amazing stroke of luck, which alone could put such a modest old middle-western rural face on the front page of the New York Times.

Wouldn’t you know she was, she is, Barbara McClintock, only the third woman in history to have won the Nobel Prize alone, for science. There is nothing condescending or cute in calling her a little old lady, she is five feet high, weighs seven stone, and is 81. You can see her type – her physical type I mean – any day on the telly, in commercials for grandma Mary Lou’s bran muffins, or telling us, with great sweetness and glinting glasses, what Smear On, the magic ointment, has done for her arthritis.

The mention that Miss McClintock – she is a lifelong spinster – is 81 and the winner of this year’s Nobel Prize for medicine will set a lot of people to wondering what happened to the theory, which is confirmed by loads of distinguished scientists, that the great basic discoveries in any science have been made by people in their late 20s, early 30s at the latest.

Well Barbara McClintock doesn’t exactly give the lie to it. Forty years ago, she had evolved and proved to her own satisfaction the theory that won her the prize. But, she confessed cheerfully the other day, speaking of the scientists, the foundations, the journals, she wanted to pass on her discovery to, "They thought I was crazy. Absolutely mad."

She had published her results but they were either ignored or ridiculed. "Nobody was reading me," she said, so what was the use? She gave up publishing, not in bitterness or distain; she was sure of her ground and she went on quietly, every day, breeding corn on the cob. How’s that? Yes, what this continent calls corn and the other English-speaking people call maize. She has been mooching around her little corn patch on Long Island ever since.

But before we come to that, we ought to go back to her beginnings, and how she came on this extraordinary or astonishingly ordinary speciality.

She was the daughter of a doctor in Hartford Connecticut. Against her mother’s conventional belief at the time that no respectable girl went to college, she went off at the age of 17 to Cornell University.

Now, it's true that, compared with other countries, a lot of American girls were going to college, during and after the First World War, but the vast majority of them went to polish up their general culture with an arts degree. This determined midget had a weird interest, plant breeding.

But that was an impossible undergraduate's speciality, so she took botany. Fifty-five years ago, she earned a doctor of science degree, in plant genetics, and from then on, devoted her life to maize.

It was a time when women would rarely, if ever, be take on as full-time staff lecturers at a university, so she moved around for 15 years when a philanthropic foundation offered a more or less permanent job at a small lab, a genetics lab, on Long Island, where she has been ever since.

Now that was in 1942. Her true lab was not a sterilised sanctuary gleaming with retorts and bubbling with noxious liquids, it was a patch of grass outside on which she grew her corn. The small, the jealous, world of geneticists heard about her dedication, and elected her to the National Academy of Sciences, assuming that sooner or later she would come through with some careful, eminently respectable research, along known lines.

Well, she didn’t. After nine years of growing and planting and pollinating, and watching and thinking, she announced her discovery, which she was convinced went beyond her observations of corn cobs.

She said that genes are not fixed units planted in a permanent position on the chromosome. She said they jump around according to no predictable plan. So that the colour changes in a kernel of maize cannot be explained by a known pattern of heredity, they obey the command of some sort of switch, and move from one part of a chromosome to another, at the bidding of yet another element, known now as an activator.

Well, it’s certainly beyond us, but at the time, it was thought by people in the genetic know to be a fairly preposterous theory.

As a Nobel committee member said, the trouble was, in 1951, only about five people in the world could possibly know what she was talking about. So, for 30 more years, she went about her daily business with corn cobs, not caring much what the experts thought.

When you know you are right, she said the other day, you know that sooner or later, it will come out in the wash. Well it took a great deal more biological and biochemical research by many people in many places, before the wash revealed that for instance, bacteria that becomes resistant to an antibiotic, pass on to other bacteria the resistant strain, by way of, what d'you think – Barbara McClintock’s crazy switches and activators.

Two years ago, the world of science moved like a landslide to acknowledge her as a great and long-neglected pioneer. Medical awards and money came pouring in with apologetic speed and a couple of weeks ago, the Nobel Prize.

She has no telephone, so she happened to hear it on the radio. Oh dear, she said, she had no idea and didn’t seem to care what the prize was worth in cash. A reporter told her, $190,000, he said. "Dear me," she said.


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