John Cairns on Barbara McClintock
  John Cairns     Biography    
Recorded: 14 Jul 2000

Barbara was a very interesting person, but there was a side to her, which I don’t think probably has come out in the books written about her and the comments which I haven’t read the books about her…She was [an] immensely difficult person who specialized in being difficult and one of her great specialties was hating whoever was director. So she used to give me a very tough time.

I remember just after [my] arrival—I was desperately going around mowing the lawn and doing the pictures for the book [Cold Spring Harbor Symposia on Quantitative Biology] and everything and Barbara came in, complained, saying, “You mustn’t do this and you must do this—the lab is a disgrace and something’s got to be done and you shouldn’t fiddle around with pictures and so on!” Where I was just going doing the ordinary business of the Lab. She would always tell me how marvelous [Milislav] Demerec was—and how awful I was—and one day I got very fed up with this so I went to Al Hershey. I said, “This is very difficult because Barbara thinks Demerec is absolutely marvelous and I’m terrible!” And Al said, “She didn’t think he was marvelous, she hated him!” Apparently, she was so difficult with him that he did not want to talk to her at all because he thought he would have a stroke when talking to her—so he kept out of her way. Well, anyway when finally I stopped being director and Jim [Watson] became director—I would go down to Barbara and say, “How’s everything coming along?” and she would roll up her eyes and show the yellow-whites of her eyes, “Chaos! Disaster!” I at this point had moved into the sort of pantheon of heroes because I was no longer director—but I only discovered that just at the end after I became director so it was no comfort to me. She was a very interesting, mystical person. It is a mindset that is not uncommon is that you like things to be obscure. [???] Anything that is not in your own field you like, you have this idea—the Gaia hypothesis—you see, there are more things you can’t quite tell in this—crop circles and everything. [???]

You see, Barbara loved all that kind of thing—loved obscurity and I think it was partly because her work had not been properly recognized when she was young and so she took the attitude to hell with everybody! I will not publish anything except in the Carnegie Annual Reports. Blast them all, they’ll be sorry in the end.”

Rick Daverns, who came from Australia to be my assistant, was determined that one of Barbara papers should be understandable. So he worked with her for a long time on a paper she was writing for a Brookhaven symposium.

He would come back from [an] hour-long session with Barbara quite white and having to take antacid tablets and things like that and eventually gave up. And [as] you read through her papers—you think—at last I’m going to understand it—I’ve understood the whole of the first page. You turn over, your half way down the second page and—CRUNCH—that was the point when Rick Davern said, “No more. I cannot manage it!” and quit.

John Cairns, physician and molecular biologist, received his degree in medicine from Oxford University in 1946. Cairns worked as a virologist at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute in Melbourne, at the Virus Research Institute in Entrebbe, Uganda and at the Curtain School of Medical Research in Canberra.

From 1960-61, Cairns spent his sabbatical at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory under Alfred Hershey. He returned to serve as director of the Lab from 1963-1968, while continuing his research on DNA replication and initiating the technique autoradiography. During Cairns’s tenure, he saw Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory officially form from an amalgamation of the Long Island Biological Association’s Biological Laboratory and the Carnegie Institution of Washington’s Department of Genetics. Cairns remained a staff member until 1972 when he was appointed head of the Mill Hill Laboratory of the Imperial Cancer Research Fund. Cairns subsequently worked at the Harvard School of Public Health until his retirement in 1991.

In addition to Cairns’s scientific endevours, he is also one of the editors of Phage and the Origins of Molecular Biology.