Bruce Alberts on Barbara McClintock
  Bruce Alberts     Biography    
Recorded: 22 Aug 2008

So I got to know Barbara McClintock very well. Somehow I just latched onto her. I got to Cold Spring Harbor and I recognized that she understood things about biology. I started as a chemist and I had no sense of what real organisms were like. She’s famous for talking about a feeling for the organism, and I had no feeling for anything for anything but chemistry of cells. And she would take me into her office, lab. Lab was just strewn with reprints that she would underline carefully. I still have some of them she gave me. She’d mark everything with different colors for different... She’s the most organized person I’ve ever seen actually. And most disciplined. And she was also an incredible observer of people and everything. And that’s why she was so good at chromosomes. She just… her mind just absorbed everything she saw, and analyzed it in really interesting ways. When she was older she used to like watching television and analyzing the body language of the announcer. And she would, she’d sit there and tell me what he was thinking based on the way he was moving. She was just incredibly observant. Which made me very uncomfortable about her looking at me! But we got to be really close friends. I mean considering our age difference. I first met her when she was I think 72 and I must have been 38 or something. Ah, but we got to be really close friends. And I really enjoyed—she was sort of a teacher. I helped edit some of the things she wrote, because she wrote in such a complicated way that nobody could understand it! So I wasn’t totally useless to her. She, she actually—Iintroduced my post docs and my graduate students, and they all, especially the women, latched on to her. And for, I think it was my 40th birthday I got a watch from my lab with a quote from something Barbara had said about me which obviously was true because she was a great observer. That “I’ve never known anybody with so little sense of time or space.” And this is sort of my submission of an excuse. But anyway, she was a great observer. And I feel sorry because we had these wonderful conversations that went on for like— I’d come there and we’d spend four hours talking, mostly her talking. I’d be asking questions. And towards the end I realized she was getting older, it was actually after she was 90. And I would bring this video camera – I had this crummy video camera. Used to take pictures of my kids. I’d bring it in my backpack or whatever. And I was always looking for an excuse to set it up and takea—this recording. I don’t think anybody ever did this. I mean I don’t think there’s anything that exists. This setting it up and letting her talk to me. And then having it on the video. And I almost did it once. But it was always the sense that’d be intruding on this valuable, you know kind of time that we had together and that somehow she’d feel that it was an intrusion. She hated publicity and all that stuff. And that it would, sort of might ruin our relationship even though we had been… even to suggest to ask her if I could video. So I still remember, leaving with my video camera the last time, and that I probably missed my last chance. And anyway, so we missed that. I wrote a little chapter for her 90th birthday celebration book which I talk about a lot of the things that she said and the ways that she thought that were highly original.

So, Barbara--as she studied her own mind in some sense. She was an incredible intellect. And she always sort of she liked to talk about art. You know, great art is something certain things in your brain that otherwise were not connected. Trying to relate enjoyment of art to the way we think. And just the whole sense that each of our minds works very differently from each other. We have this linear output that’s talking, and it’s interpreting something that’s different. It’s actually quite a nice way of thinking about individual differences. I mean [that] I’m good at some things, and I’m terrible at other things. And if we had a good education system, the kind we should have, every middle school student would understand that their brain is somehow unique and their job in education was to find out what they were good at and then try to devolve that. Not to…we have this horrible system now that this grade says you’re either smart or you’re dumb. And if you’re dumb then you might as well drop out of school and forget about it. But in fact everybody is good at something. And if we had schooling that made you, people realize that you know, even [though] this person can’t read very well, it’s terrific at something else and they could develop that. Without that there’s no reason to go through school.

Bruce Alberts, currently Editor-in-chief of Science, Professor Emeritus in the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysic at the University of California and United States Science Envoy. He received A.B. (1960) in Biochemical Science from Harvard College, Cambridge, Massachusetts and Ph.D. (1965) from Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts. In 1966 he joined Department of Chemistry at the Princeton University and after 10 years he became professor and vice chair of the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysic at the UCSF.

Alberts work is best known for his work on the protein complexes that allow chromosomes to be replicated. He is one of the authors of The Molecular Biology of the Cell, a major textbook in the field. He served two-six years terms as a president of National Academy of Science (1993-2005). During his administration at NAS, he was involved in developing the landmark of National Science Education standards.

Among many honors and awards (16 honorary degrees), he is Co-chair of the InterAcademy Council and a trustee of Gordon and Betty Moore Fundation.

More Information: Wikipedia, UCSF