Robert Martiennsen on Barbara McClintock as a Pioneer in Maize Genetics
  Robert Martiennsen     Biography    
Recorded: 20 Feb 2001

She's a real icon in the maize field, maize genetics, and actually her impact on that field is much greater than many people working outside that field might realize. In the 1930s and '40s, she was one of the leading maize geneticists in the world, and this was outside of the area of transposable elements. Her work in cytogenetics, for example, the classic experiment she did in the early 1930s was to demonstrate that crossing over, cytological crossing over, which you can see under a microscope, is correlated with genetic crossing over. And a lot of people like to say that [experiment] showed that genes were on chromosomes, and so, in that sense, she was part of the very early discussions on the nature of the gene and the physical nature of the gene. So I think that's something that was really important to maize geneticists at the time. Certainly her renown outside the maize field made maize geneticists feel more that they were part of the main stream of biology especially later in the '50s and '60s when bacterial genetics and other sorts of genetics, yeast and fruit flies and so on, became more fashionable than maize. The maize genetics community still felt that through her, to some extent, they had a real place in the main stream. So I think her impact was huge on maize genetics. Maize geneticists sort of fall into various camps and she was quite a controversial figure, as well. She had quite strong opinions, especially then, and there were some famous arguments she had. This was all a long, long time ago and most of the people were certainly long dead by the time I knew her, but some of those old controversies and ideas were still around. It was a lot of fun to be part of her conversations with other maize geneticists. So we used to have people visit here. Sometimes, for example, Drew Schwartz, who was a graduate student of Marcus Rhoades. And Marcus Rhoades was one of her great colleagues and friends in the '30s and '40s. And so he was, in a sense, part of that history. He spent about 6 months here on sabbatical, and it was really fun to be part of their conversations with each other. I think she had a lot of respect for him, but at the same time she had firm opinions that he was wrong about this, and he was wrong about that, and maybe he had something right there. It was interesting to see them interact in the way that they must have done in the '40s and '50s, so that was fun. She liked young people, more than she did old people, actually. She had much more difficulty keeping what you might call an open mind when talking to some of these older colleagues, partly because they tended to have entrenched views of their own. But with younger scientists, she actually really liked to explore new ideas, very new ideas. She liked technology. She liked being able to see the latest results with microscopy, especially, and she was very much a molecular person. She was completely comfortable talking about molecules, as much as she was about chromosomes and that actually was very exciting. She didn't like a trend, which is still true—I'm guilty of it myself—the reduction of molecular biology to cartoons. So you'll find in her writing that she never draws a cartoon. She will occasionally draw a picture of the chromosome to illustrate what she could see under the microscope, but she would never draw [for example] a ball representing one protein and an element moving. All of those sort of cartoons were all done afterwards. And again, in the very first few weeks when I was here, I was trying to explain some of the ways I was thinking about epigenetics and I started to draw some of these cartoons and she stopped and said, "No, no, don't do that! Don't draw these cartoons."

Actually, I hate to say it, but I did just—literally just—published a cartoon in Genetics about maize transposable elements, but there we are. Maybe I should have taken her advice. We'll find out.

Rob Martienssen is a plant molecular geneticist and professor at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. He received his Ph.D. from Cambridge University in 1986 and did postdoctoral research at the University of California, Berkeley.

As a young scientist, he worked closely with Barbara McClintock. He currently studies plant epigenetics and development using functional genomics. He was awarded the Kumho International Science Award in Plant Biology and Biotechnology (2001).