Brushes with genius: Faculty members recall Barbara McClintock at library panel discussion

The donation of an ear of corn crossbred by Nobel Prize-winning plant geneticist Barbara McClintock to Cornell Library provided the occasion Aug. 6 for a panel of longtime Cornell faculty members to reflect on their experiences with McClintock, who died in 1992.

At the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in 1983, Cornell microbiologist Susan Henry spent the day with McClintock '23, M.A. '25, Ph.D. '27, who would win the Nobel Prize later that year. It took stamina and specialized advanced knowledge of genetics for Henry to follow the fast-moving train of McClintock's thought.

"At the end of the day, my brain, it was just absolutely fried," said Henry, a professor of molecular biology and genetics and former dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at the panel discussion in Kroch Library. "Ideas just come out of her, and she assumes that you understand everything that she's saying. Following what she was saying was very complicated, but I think I did pretty well."

So well that toward the end of the day McClintock gave Henry the ear of corn that illustrated the ideas they had discussed. Henry went on to use the ear in her classes for many years and donated it, along with various McClintock papers, to Cornell Library's Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections.

McClintock (1902-92) cut an intimidating figure. At lunch with McClintock in Cold Spring Harbor that day, Henry remembered, "It was funny to watch the other people come into that cafeteria, and they would not come and sit near us. It was like a poisoned circle around us. Clearly, they were so afraid of her or maybe her intellect."

Professor of the history of biology Will Provine, the Charles A. Alexander Professor of Biological Sciences, said that he traveled to Cold Spring Harbor with a colleague far more knowledgeable about McClintock's work than he. "So I didn't worry, being as ignorant as I was, although I could follow a good deal of what she said," he remembered. "We had this wonderful day together, and at the end of the day, she sidled up next to me and offered me a gift. It was not an ear of corn."

McClintock, who no longer drove, offered Provine her bright red 1953 Mercury. "I nearly fell over," Provine said. "I didn't know what to say except, no."

Royse P. Murphy, professor emeritus of plant breeding and genetics, met McClintock in Missouri when he was a graduate student in the 1940s. "She was a great cytogeneticist before she was a molecular geneticist," said Murphy, who remembered McClintock as an excellent host of a couple of scientific meetings. "Quite a few people simply went to Columbia, Mo., to spend a day or two with her and to learn the techniques."

Panelist Lee Kass, Ph.D. '75, who is writing a McClintock biography, said, "What she would do when she gave a talk was to make an outline, and then she would almost write the whole presentation out ... The thing is that, if you actually went and listened to that lecture ... she would be thinking so quickly that she'd be jumping ahead of herself."

McClintock was an A.D. White Professor at Large at Cornell from 1965-74. "She was busy meeting with scientists and graduate students essentially every day of the week," Murphy said.

"We used to say that she was holding court," said Kass, who met McClintock during this period and said that McClintock, a no-frills woman, preferred to stay at the Collegetown Motor Lodge on College Avenue rather than at the Statler, and she often had coffee and dined with graduate students.

University Archivist Elaine Engst hosted the discussion.

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Blaine Friedlander