Michael Ashburner on Barbara McClintock: Feminist Icon?
  Michael Ashburner     Biography    
Recorded: 03 Jul 2003

I remember there was [Evelyn] Fox Keller’s book, the Mystery of the Organism [A Feeling for the Organism], which she hated. Fox Keller’s biography [of Barbara McClintock]. Fox Keller did Barbara a great disservice in that she built her up as this kind of feminist icon who’d never got recognition; she’d never been accepted. It was crazy. Barbara is the second woman elected to the National Academy. Her classical work in cytology had enormous recognition. She showed with Harriet Creighton in 1931 that recombination actually involves a physical exchange of chromosomal material. She’s beaten to that by Curt Stern who did the same experiment in Berlin a few months earlier. It’s still a wonderful experiment. I think the fact that she spent the last fifty years here not traveling very much was what she wanted to do; it wasn’t because she was being ignored by people. The public perception of Barbara is very much misunderstood because her work in transposable elements in maize was far from being overlooked. I was taught [it] as an undergraduate. Part of the problem was that she never really published it. Most of that work was published in her annual reports back to the Carnegie and there are very few serious papers. There’s at least one symposium paper and there’s a Brookhaven symposium paper as well. But no one ever doubted that. What people doubted and quite correctly, I mean she was wrong, was the role that transposable elements may have in development. With that she was wrong. I don’t think anyone believed [that] at the time. She was a great geneticist. A fantastic geneticist. But to build her into this feminist icon —but that’s now been corrected by the new biography by Nathan [Comfort]. He’s quite right. He says that Fox Keller is just achieving her own political agenda and doesn’t understand genetics. I mean she wrote this crazy book about the death of the concept of the gene and doesn’t understand it at all, anyway.

Michael Ashburner, a leader in Drosophila Genetics and bioinformatics, received his B.A. (1964), M.A. (1968), Ph.D. (1968) and Sc.D. (1978) from the University of Cambridge, where he is currently professor of Biology in the Department of Genetics and a Professional Fellow of Churchill College.

He has been the joint head of European Bioinformatics Institute (EBI), of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) and was co-founder of Flybase, the primary online database for Drosophila genetics and molecular biology, the Gene Ontology Consortium, an effort to coordinate biological databases through a defined taxonomy of gene function, and the Crete Meetings, a bi-annual event focusing on the developmental and molecular biology of Drosophila melanogaster.

Among many honors, he is the recipient of the G.J. Mendel Medal (Czech Republic 1998) and the George W. Beadle Medal (Genetics Society of America 1999).

Michael Ashburner