A Feeling for the Organism: The Life and Work of Barbara McClintock


A Feeling for the Organism: The Life and Work of Barbara McClintock by Evelyn Fox Keller

Synopsis: For much of her life she worked alone, brilliant but eccentric, with ideas that made little sense to her colleagues. Yet before DNA and the molecular revolution, Barbara McClintock’s tireless analysis of corn led her to uncover some of the deepest, most intricate secrets of genetic organization. Nearly forty years later, her insights would bring her a MacArthur Foundation grant, the Nobel Prize, and long overdue recognition. At her recent death at age 90, she was widely acknowledged as one of the most significant figures in 20th-century science.

Evelyn Fox Keller’s acclaimed biography, A Feeling for the Organism, gives us the full story of McClintock’s pioneering―although sometimes professionally difficult―career in cytology and genetics. The book now appears in a special edition marking the 10th anniversary of its original publication.

First Published: 1983 | ISBN-13: 978-0805074581

Mini-bio: Barbara McClintock was an American scientist and cytogeneticist who was awarded the 1983 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. McClintock received her PhD in botany from Cornell University in 1927. Wikipedia

Mini-bio: Evelyn Fox Keller is an American physicist, author and feminist. She is currently Professor Emerita of History and Philosophy of Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Wikipedia

Barbara McClintock (1902-1992) was an American scientist. She received her PhD in botany from Cornell University in 1927, for a thesis on the cytology and genetics of maize, and this topic was the focus of her research for the rest of her life. She made many important discoveries with very broad applicability, some of which were met with deep skepticism by other scientists. Later research confirmed her discoveries, and she was awarded the 1983 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Three aspects of her life and work stand out. Barbara McClintock was a woman, and she faced what we might call the usual challenges that women scientists in the mid-20th century met, e.g. her alma mater Cornell would not hire a woman professor. She definitely did not like this. Also, she had an individual way of doing science, one very different from the way others in her field went about their research. She took pride in calling herself a mystic. The title of the book hints at this. Finally, McClintock’s career was affected by what one might think of as an historical accident. Her research was initially in the mainstream of genetics – she was elected President of the Genetics Society of America in 1944 – but she was to become marginalized with the rapid growth and enormous success of the new field of molecular biology. It took a long time for a molecular understanding of her most important work to emerge. As a woman, as someone with a very personal way of doing science, and as a scientist making discoveries that did not make sense under the dominant paradigm, she had a very hard time. This fascinating book discusses all these aspects of her life, and puts them together in a compelling and sympathetic portrait of a remarkable woman. – From 10 Great Books on Women in Science, (Suggested by Terry Speed PhD)

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