Recorded: 09 Apr 2001
As a student when we went to Cold Spring Harbor. Barbara [McClintock] is one of these paradoxical people. So whatever you heard about Barbara, the opposite you’ll also hear and is also true. Barbara was a recluse but Barbara loved people and sought them out. I think she—I think when I was young, I met Barbara. I was a graduate student and she was about 70 years old, roughly, and she might have been having a crisis in her life. I don’t know this but when I look back, [I see] she needed someone to talk to; she was quite unhappy at that time. She…might have seen me as a young woman who maybe, as a scientist, she could talk to. I don’t know if this is correct, but maybe she was reliving these very difficult years as having to be a woman scientist at a time when it was so difficult. And she wanted to tell me how painful this had been and difficult it had been for her; and how she would be asked to sit outside the door and the men would discuss her results, and so forth. And she used to seek me out to talk about this and was terribly distressed about it. Because I didn’t know her, and I just thought biology was wonderful and I was going to have a wonderful life, and I didn’t want to hear about her terribly hard time she’d had, because it wasn’t going to happen to me! And it was very painful for me to hear her talk about how hard a life she had.
And so she must have been about 70. I think she got through that period and then she stopped talking about that, about how difficult it was at the time. When I finished my career to go to graduate school and then I was off to my job at MIT, she said, “Don’t go to a university, Nancy. The discrimination is so terrible; you will never survive it!” But, you know, I didn’t want to hear this depressing news. But of course as time went by, I understood what she lived through and to realize what I have lived through myself, my sympathy [went out to her] and I felt badly that I hadn’t understood more when she needed someone to talk to about her life, and I hadn’t understood it better. We came to be good friends and I went to her 90th birthday party and again I came to realize that she was one of the people that I had loved most in my life. I truly loved that woman. She was amazing.
She talked a lot about the politics of science and, you know, she found it so difficult, I think, and again, I wish I could talk to her now with the understanding I have now of having been a woman in science, which I didn’t myself understand for so many years. I wish I could talk to her now. But she said a funny thing to me towards the end of her life; she must have been in her late eighties. And she was talking again about the treatment of women and science and the difficulties they have, and she said, “You know, I will never understand this problem. There is something in this that we don’t understand; there is something biological, I think, about this relationship between men and women and these men just don’t like these women!” And she said, “I’ll never understand it to the day I die!” So I wish she would come back so we could chat about it.
Nancy Hopkins is a developmental biologist and the Amgen, Inc. Professor of Biology at MIT. Working under Jim Watson and Mark Ptashne, Hopkins earned her Ph.D. from Harvard in 1971. As a postdoctoral fellow she moved to the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory where she continued working under Watson researching DNA tumor viruses. In 1973 she joined the MIT faculty as an assistant professor in the Center for Cancer Research, where she researched the mechanisms of replication and leukemogenesis by RNA tumor viruses for 17 years.
Hopkins has also led an ongoing effort to end discrimination against women in science. In 1995 she was appointed Chair of the first Committee on Women Faculty in the School of Science at MIT, and in 2000 she was appointed Co-Chair of the first Council on Faculty Diversity at MIT. Hopkins co-authored the fourth edition of Molecular Biology of the Gene. She is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a member of the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences.