BOSTON -- On Oct. 10, 1983, geneticist Barbara McClintock awoke to learn she had become a Nobel laureate in physiology or medicine. Within days, the media gathered biographical material about the quiet scientist, and disturbing stories about her academic life surfaced: First, that Cornell University had denied her admission into its graduate plant breeding program in the 1920s and, second, that the University of Missouri had denied her tenure in the 1930s.
National news stories and newspaper editorials throughout the country condemned the schools for their apparent gender discrimination against McClintock.
Now, a decade after McClintock's death, Lee Kass, a visiting professor in plant biology at Cornell in Ithaca, N.Y., has conducted archival research at the two universities expecting to substantiate these claims. But Kass has found the news stories were wrong. "The media found it a good story and went with it," says Kass.
Kass will discuss McClintock at 2:15 p.m. today (Feb. 15) at a symposium, "A New Look at Barbara McClintock and Rosalind Franklin," at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in Boston.
Another case of alleged gender discrimination will be discussed at the symposium by Lynne Elkin, professor of biological sciences at California State University at Hayward. She will re-examine the case of Franklin, who discovered crucial keys to DNA's structure while working at King's College, London. Her data were used by James Watson and Francis Crick at Cambridge University in deciphering the structure of DNA in March 1953. The 1962 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine was awarded to Watson, Crick and Maurice Wilkins, largely for their DNA research. Elkin will reveal new evidence indicating that Franklin, who died in 1958, probably never realized the extent to which Watson and Crick had access to her data. Regarding McClintock, Kass says: "Specifically, the media misinterpreted what [Evelyn Fox] Keller wrote in her biography [A Feeling for the Organism , 1983, W.H. Freeman & Co.] of McClintock. Keller never said that McClintock was denied tenure and neither did McClintock.
"A lot of biographies are based on oral history, and I've learned that you cannot rely on interviews. I've become a total skeptic," says Kass. "When biographical researchers interviewed Barbara McClintock, she was in her late 70s and her memory was clouded by 50 years of life. She told the truth, as she remembered it. But it appears that her biographers had no access to documents that supported her stories. This resulted in some misinterpretations which grew into legends."
Archived records that went unscrutinized before Kass's research show McClintock never applied for a graduate student slot in Cornell's plant breeding department. Nor was she ever denied tenure at the University of Missouri.
In the 1920s, Cornell's College of Agriculture did not offer specific undergraduate majors but instead granted general bachelor's degrees, with concentrations. McClintock received a Cornell bachelor of science degree, with a concentration in plant breeding and botany, in June 1923. On that same date, Helen Ziegler Trajkovick became the first woman to receive a master's degree in plant breeding from Cornell.
"How can you say that Cornell denied admitting women into plant breeding because of their gender when there was another woman on the register" asks Kass rhetorically. She believes it is possible that Rollins A. Emerson, the agriculture college dean, knew that McClintock would have had difficulty finding a job after graduation if she had mastered in plant breeding. Not wanting to develop an unemployable graduate, Kass thinks Emerson suggested that she earn an advanced degree in botany -- making her employable.
Kass also challenges the notion that the University of Missouri denied McClintock tenure. In the late 1930s, the University of Missouri hired McClintock for its genetics research program, funded by the Rockefeller Foundation. In that era, the American Association of University Professors established 10 years as the time a faculty member had to serve to gain tenure.
But, Kass says, McClintock was miserable in Missouri, took a leave of absence and found a temporary research appointment at the Carnegie Institution at Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y. Carnegie subsequently offered McClintock a full-time position at $4,000 annually, which was $1,000 more than she was earning at Missouri. The university matched Carnegie's offer, which would have made her salary comparable to other faculty at that rank at Missouri, plus tenure. "The counteroffer didn't sound like she was being denied tenure," says Kass. "She went to Cold Spring Harbor because it seemed ideal for her career goals."
Kass has spent several years sifting through archival records, personal correspondence, academic transcripts and files, as well as department, employment and performance records. "Probably, most importantly, this shows the fragility of human memory," says Kass. "Accounts of McClintock's life and work based upon documents found in archives are probably more reliable than interpretations founded in memoirs or autobiographical recollections."