Jameson Watson room in the Wellcome Genome Campus Conference Centre

Meeting room renamed the Barbara McClintock Pavilion

So who was Barbara McClintock, and why have we named a room after her?

We recently renamed one of the main meeting rooms at the Wellcome Genome Campus Conference Centre – the James Watson Pavilion – after Barbara McClintock.

Barbara McClintock was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1983, for her work on the discovery of transposons – small segments of genetic code that are able to move around the genome, often leaving a trail of mutations behind them.

Credit: Smithsonian Institution/Science Service; Restored by Adam Cuerden [Public domain]
McClintock was born in Connecticut in 1902, and was part of a surge of American women who took advantage of improved access to higher education after the end of the First World War. She studied agriculture and botany at Cornell University during the 1920s, focussing on chromosomal behaviour and inheritance in maize. It was in these plants, that her ground-breaking work on transposons took place, when she moved to the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in the 1940s. McClintock didn’t have any of the tools that modern-day scientists take for granted. There were no DNA sequencing machines to analyse genes, as no one really knew what a gene actually was, let alone how this mysterious entity determined anything about us. Instead, McClintock had perseverance, skill with a microscope, and a lot of maize plants.

Today, scientists have found transposons in all sorts of organisms from yeasts to humans, and their jumping around the genome is likely to have influenced evolution across different populations of organisms. Barbara McClintock officially retired in 1967 after a 40 year career, but continued to live on the Cold Spring Harbor campus, regularly attending its scientific meetings until shortly before her death in 1992. She was a true leader in the field of genetic research, not just because she was one of the first wave of female research scientists in American universities, but because she was unafraid to explore previously uncharted biological territory.

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