A Feeling for the Organism

The Life and Work of Barbara McClintock
By Evelyn Fox Keller

W. H. Freeman and Co., 1983
235 pages; paperback; $16.00


In her lifelong study of heredity in corn Barbara McClintock achieved insights into hereditary patterns that were far ahead of her times. In this well researched, beautifully written biography, Evelyn Fox Keller asks: “What enabled McClintock to see further and deeper into the mysteries of genetics than her colleagues?” McClintock’s answer is simple. Over and over again, she tells us one must have the time to look, the patience to “hear what the material has to say to you,” the openness to “let it come to you.” Above all, one must have “a feeling for the organism.” … “I start with the seedling. I don’t feel I really know the story if I don’t watch the plant all the way along. So I know every plant in the field. I know them intimately, and I find it a great pleasure to know them.” … “I have learned so much about the corn plant that when I see things, I can interpret [them] right away.” (p. 197-98)

Through her discovery of transposition she came to see that, rather than genes per se, “it is organized systems that function as units at any one time in development.” (p. 136) For her, the discovery of transposition was above all a key to the complexity of genetic organization—an indicator of the subtlety with which cytoplasm, membranes, and DNA are integrated into a single structure. “It is the overall organization, or orchestration, that enables the organism to meet its needs.” (p. 199)


“A brilliant and completely convincing book. I suspect the portrait drawn here is the most we shall ever learn about this remarkable woman.” — Science 83


1. An Historical Overview
2. The Capacity to Be Alone
3. Becoming a Scientist
4. A Career for Women
5. 1936-1941: University of Missouri
6. Interlude: A Sketch of the Terrain
7. Cold Spring Harbor
8. Transposition
9. A Different Language
10. Molecular Biology
11. Transposition Rediscovered
12. A Feeling for the Organism