Elizabeth Blackburn on Barbara McClintock
  Elizabeth Blackburn     Biography    
Recorded: 01 Jun 2000

While I interacted with lots of wonderful people here, I never had such deep, scientific kind of connections with most people. But I met Barbara McClintock cause Bruce Albert’s in his very warm way, he just said, “Oh, you have to meet Barbara McClintock!” So he took me down and I knew her and I knew how famous she was and so forth. But she just absolutely, kind of, enchanted and enraptured me cause she just immediately got deeply into all of this scientific discussion. She had all her ears of corns all around. She was showing us all the different stocks. And she—and actually I remember this very, very clearly because I was telling her that—she was saying, “What do you do when you get strange experimental results?” And I was a little shy at that point and I just said, “And I’ve got strange results too that I don’t understand.” And she said something very wonderful like, “Really go with your intuition, really trust what you see.” She said all these things we now know she is very famous for saying, but it was very influential to me to hear somebody like her saying, saying what she said. And she was just so nice. Here was this random person who shows up and she was just so nice and talked with me a lot.

So when I subsequently come back for a seminar here or for subsequent symposia or conferences then I would always go and make a point of visiting with her. And I remember just afternoons when she would be sitting in her—that that big office area that she had with lots and lots of file cabinets and books and papers and stuff in it. She’d have her jellybeans and she would just be talking and talking for like two and three hours and it would get late in the afternoons and she wouldn’t put the lights on and I didn’t want to touch a thing. I didn’t want to move, in case the spell got broken.

And she would talk about all these wonderful things, which also amazed me because she would go—she would talk about an experiment she did in the thirties, like a very classical experiment she’d done. And then she would then immediately make some reference to some totally new thing that had just come out in a journal, a couple of months ago or something. And so you had to be listening very hard because you had to make sure that you were hearing the experiments in their right context, was this a nineteen—seventies or eighties experiment? Or was this a nineteen thirties of forties experiment? And conceptually she had just kind of, she had seen the modern and the classical linkages and she just sort of fused them intellectually into one kind of fusion.

I mean I could have just forever gone and talked with her. When I say talked, I mean she did most of the talking, but she just was so very, very knowledgeable about so many things and had these very interesting insights.

And I actually I wrote of her you remember the book that came out in 1990, and I was trying to dredge up things that I’d remember from what she had said. But, I wrote it in that and this is really true because, we were thinking about—I had been thinking about telomeres and how strangely the DNA behaved and she said, “I have this stock,” or “I had this stock of maize mutants and they had, there was a mutation in it failed to heal broken ends.” And she tried healing of broken ends with something that naturally occurred in certain developmental windows, certain tissue types, certain cell types. And the fact that a mutation couldn’t do that said that there was something deliberate about the process of healing, it wasn’t just lucky. There was something there which you could mutate and then it couldn’t do this, and so it was one of these kind of things that gelled in my head and said, “Ah! Okay, there’s something that is a real process that goes on.” And it was one of the things that, while it was worthwhile looking for what we—what Carol Greider and I subsequently found as telomerase, because we said, “Okay, there’s something there.” It was one of the kinds of pieces of evidence that said this is not just a lucky accident. And then she said the stocks had been lost a long time ago. At this stage, not that anybody at this stage could have done anything about it. Now, of course, we’d love to have that mutant and be very curious to know all exactly what was it because there’s quite a list of possibilities.

Elizabeth Blackburn is a leader in the study of telomere function and biology. She earned her B.Sc. (1970) and M.Sc. (1972) degrees from the University of Melbourne in Australia, and her Ph.D. (1975) from the University of Cambridge in England. She did her postdoctoral work in molecular and cellular biology at Yale from 1975 to 1977. Blackburn is currently a professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics, and a faculty member in the Program in Biological Sciences and Biomedical Sciences at UCSF as well as a Non-Resident Fellow of the Salk Institute.

Blackburn discovered the ribonucleprotein enzyme, telomerase, and currently researches the effect that the manipulation of telomerase activity has on cells. Her laboratory work intends to elucidate the biology of telomerase and telomere.

She attended her first meeting at CSHL in the late 1970’s and has organized Telomeres and Telomerase meetings at the Lab. Blackburn was a mentor to former Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory scientist, Dr. Carol W. Greider.

The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2009 was awarded jointly to Elizabeth H. Blackburn, Carol W. Greider and Jack W. Szostak "for the discovery of how chromosomes are protected by telomeres and the enzyme telomerase".

Copyright © The Nobel Foundation, 2009

Blackburn is an elected Fellow to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1991), the Royal Society of London (1992), and the American Academy of Microbiology (1993). She is a foreign associate of the National Academy of Sciences (1993) and Past-President of the American Society for Cell Biology (1998).