From Cornell to Cornfields: Barbara McClintock’s Powerful Purpose

June 15, 2023
by Taylor Houston

Barbara McClintock was a dedicated pioneer of genetic science. Her lifelong commitment to the study of corn produced remarkable results, earning her several notable awards including the Nobel Prize in Medicine and the National Medal of Science. 

Earning all of her degrees from Cornell, Barbara showed interest in genetics and science before women were even welcome in the field. With much of her study being conducted between the early 1930s and the late ‘60s, Barbara was a trailblazer in every sense of the word.

Barbara McClintock in the cornfield at CSHL, ca. 1950s

Due to the national barriers against higher education for women, Barbara began her official studies in Germany, just before the rise of Hitler. Thankfully, she took heed to the increasingly turbulent climate and fled the country just a year later in 1934.

Upon her return, she was granted funding from the National Science Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation to complete her decades-long study of corn throughout Central and South America. 

Her findings offered a more well-rounded view of genetics and the way offspring inherit traits and characteristics from their parents. Barbara discovered how genes can move, mutate, and change depending on several factors in the parent and offspring’s environment. 

Despite being met with some skepticism, Barbara remained confident in her findings, earning her rightful recognition before her retirement. Barbara’s studies have since transcended the South American cornfields, shaping the way scientists understand the nature of genetics for all creatures and organisms.