Overview

This biographical study illuminates one of the most important yet misunderstood figures in the history of science. Barbara McClintock (1902-1992), a geneticist who integrated classical genetics with microscopic observations of the behavior of chromosomes, was regarded as a genius and as an unorthodox, nearly incomprehensible thinker. In 1946, she discovered mobile genetic elements, which she called "controlling elements." Thirty-seven years later, she won a Nobel Prize for this work, becoming the third woman to ...

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THE TANGLED FIELD

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Overview

This biographical study illuminates one of the most important yet misunderstood figures in the history of science. Barbara McClintock (1902-1992), a geneticist who integrated classical genetics with microscopic observations of the behavior of chromosomes, was regarded as a genius and as an unorthodox, nearly incomprehensible thinker. In 1946, she discovered mobile genetic elements, which she called "controlling elements." Thirty-seven years later, she won a Nobel Prize for this work, becoming the third woman to receive an unshared Nobel in science. Since then, McClintock has become an emblem of feminine scientific thinking and the tragedy of narrow-mindedness and bias in science.

Using McClintock's research notes, newly available correspondence, and dozens of interviews with McClintock and others, Comfort argues that McClintock's work was neither ignored in the 1950s nor wholly accepted two decades later. Nor was McClintock marginalized by scientists; throughout the decades of her alleged rejection, she remained a distinguished figure in her field. Comfort replaces the "McClintock myth" with a new story, rich with implications for our understanding of women in science and scientific creativity.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Barbara McClintock received the Nobel prize in 1983 at age 81 for her work in corn genetics. Evelyn Fox Keller's biography of McClintock, A Feeling for the Organism, was published that same year. This current study by the deputy director of the Center for History of Recent Science, George Washington University, argues that Keller's description of McClintock's milieu and, indeed, McClintock's own description of her role in scientific society were often at odds with reality. Comfort suggests that rather than being a loner and maverick who served as a target of bias and narrow-mindedness, McClintock was always well respected and remained a distinguished figure in the scientific community until her death in 1992. The author develops several themes to explain McClintock's life, among them her need for independence and control over her own work. He also goes to great pains to explain the significance of her work at each stage. What he does not demonstrate is whether there really was substantial understanding of her work at the time that it was done. Certainly, after major development in related fields such as molecular biology, her early ideas were more appreciated. Regardless, this is an interesting work that provides insight into McClintock's work and personality. For academic libraries. Hilary D. Burton, Lawrence Livermore National Lab., CA Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Choice
Comfort sets out in this intellectual biography of Barbara McClintock to replace the myth of the isolated, misunderstood victim of masculine bias who failed to win immediate recognition for her work with a more nuanced and individuated story that focuses on her actual work, particularly that of her later years. This carefully researched book pays particular attention to McClintock's research notes and previously unpublished correspondence, and it demonstrates a thorough knowledge and understanding of the science involved...[T]his is the first full-length, carefully documented, and scientifically informative study of [McClintock's] life and work, and it is an important contribution to the history of science, particularly of genetics, as well as to feminist science and the history of ideas.
— M. H. Chaplin
Booklist
Lucid, engaging, and unafraid of controversy, Comfort also dismantles the popular image of McClintock as a mystic and a female pioneer marginalized by male scientists. He portrays instead a highly respected and dedicated professional adamant about maintaining her personal and intellectual freedom, who possessed an astonishing attunement to complexity and pattern and a protean ability to rapidly solve intricate, multidimensional problems.
— Donna Seaman
Natural History
This readable biography of one of the twentieth century's most important geneticists interweaves fact and insight about McClintock as both person and scientist. Her discovery of mobile genetic elements in corn and her efforts to resolve fundamental problems in biology (development, heredity, and evolution) make her...a rare visionary.
American Scientist
In this ambitious biographical study of Barbara McClintock...[Comfort] challenges the standard interpretation of her science and her life...Comfort has reconstructed in great detail, experiment by experiment, McClintock's work on transposons...He spent years deciphering her cramped and faded handwriting in lab notebooks, on seed packets and in letters to her closest friends...The Tangled Field will certainly stand as the definitive work on Barbara McClintock's discovery of transposition and her ambition to explain development through controlling elements...Comfort does admirably what he set out to do--answer the many fascinating and troubling questions about McClintock's Nobel Prize-winning research, including why it took almost 40 years not to rediscover Barbara McClintock's work but to reinterpret it.
— Carla C. Keirns
Times Literary Supplement
Nathaniel Comfort's book enhances McClintock's status as one of the leading geneticists of the twentieth century. Putting aside the myth of the outsider, he describes how her contributions were appreciated by her contemporaries, and shows that she was well supported by colleagues in her search for a congenial work environment...The Tangled Field is set to become the definitive biography of Barbara McClintock.
— Anne Magurran
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674029828
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 6/30/2009
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 368
  • File size: 777 KB

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments

1 Myth

2 Freedom

3 Integration

4 Pattern

5 Control

6 Complexity

7 Reception

8 Response

9 Renaissance

10 Synthesis

Appendix: A Molecular Epilogue

Notes

Interviews

Index

Photographs follow page 68.

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