Edward Lewis on Barbara McClintock
  Edward Lewis     Biography    
Recorded: 04 Jun 2001

She came here too. She had become very strange after she ha[d] found all these things she called “jumping genes.” The older staff who worked here would try to ask her questions, she would say, “You don’t know anything,” and just dismiss them. She was living in the past and what she had. [???] It was really kind of pathetic. She treated Sewall Wright that way, too. He tried to ask her some questions, but she was so overwhelmed at what she found, I think, that she started to get grandiose and mystical ideas. But her science was very good and I don’t think it interfered with it. She was interested in the young people going into molecular and microbial biology in the corn life cycles. They knew nothing about corn and she would have great fun tell[ing] them all about it and they would listen with rapt ears. All week they would ask her questions about it. She certainly uncovered a new phenomenon. But it did have to wait until the molecular people figured out what it was and if it had anything to do with development. It turns out these transposable elements are mutating elements like camecoals or X-rays. [They] just jump all over the genome and cause[d] almost all mutations that we worked on during the early days. It was entirely different from these problems [that] the molecular people thought, [that] the base pairs change and things like that. She might have been wrong; it’s just… jumping elements, not genes. History is like that in science, that it changes the whole perception of everything.

Fortunately, it’s accepted by people fairly quickly, which is good so people don’t hang onto dumb ideas. Once the Watson/Crick helix came out people said, “That’s it, why couldn’t we have thought of it before! It’s so obvious.”

Edward B. Lewis (1918-2004) was a renowned leader in genetics and Drosophila development research. He received his Ph.D. from the California Institute of Technology in 1942. He served as captain of the United States Army Air Force from 1942-1945 as a meteorologist and an oceanographer in the Pacific Theatre. In 1946, he joined the Caltech faculty and was appointed Professor of Biology in 1956, earning a Thomas Hunt Morgan Professorship in 1966. In 1995, Lewis won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine “for discoveries concerning the genetic control of early embryonic development” along with Christiane Nusslein-Volhard and Eric Wieschaus. Lewis is also a recipient of the Thomas Hunt Morgan Medal (1983), the Gairdner Foundation International award (1987), the Wolf Foundation prize in medicine (1989), the Rosenstiel award (1990) and the National Medal of Science (1990).