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Barbara McClintock Collection

Identifier: BMC

Scope and Content

The McClintock Collection covers the period from 1907-2008 and includes over 120 photographs, a correspondence file of 58 letters written and received by such notables as Charles Davenport, Milislav Demerec and Vannevar Bush, a set of 147 reprints written by 336 scientists and collected by Dr. McClintock, who made handwritten notations on them, and a slide collection consisting of 24 undated boxes of assorted sizes, which contain film of seedlings, kernels, and maize with Dr. McClintock’s notations on the boxes. The collection also includes actual corn kernels and photocopies of Dr. McClintock’s field notebooks card files.

Though Dr. McClintock donated the bulk of her collection to the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, the McClintock Collection at Cold Spring Harbor includes materials not available elsewhere including photographs documenting her scientific career at Cold Spring Harbor from 1941-1992, her letter of acceptance to work at the Department of Genetics and her Nobel Prize Folio.

The collection consists of 10 series:

  1. Series 1: Biographical, 1983-1992
  2. Series 2: Correspondence, 1941-2002
  3. Series 3: Subject Files, 1972-2005
  4. Series 4: Scientific Research, 1924-1989
  5. Series 5: Reprints, 1926-1992
  6. Series 6: Photographs, 1907-1999
  7. Series 7: Clippings, 1970-2003
  8. Series 8: Artifacts, 1920-2008
  9. Series 9: Audiovisual, 1983-1990
  10. Series 10: Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology, 1983


  • Creation: 1907 - 2008


Language of Materials


Access Restrictions

There are restrictions on certain images in Photographic series. Please see archivist for details.. The CSHL Archives is available by appointment, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Use Restriction

Archival materials must remain in the archival reading area. Item duplication is to be done by archivists. Fees are applied to copies made. Digital photography is permitted by users. Due to the very fragile nature of some materials in this collection, some are available through photocopies; others must be used under the supervision of an archivist.


Barbara McClintock, America's most distinguished cytogeneticist, was born in Hartford, Connecticut on June 16, 1902. She received her B.S. from Cornell University in 1923 and earned her M.A. in 1925 and her Ph.D. in 1927, also from Cornell. McClintock served as a graduate assistant in the Department of Botany from 1924-27 and in 1927, following completion of her graduate studies, was appointed Instructor, a post she held until 1931. McClintock was awarded a National Research Council Fellowship in 1931 and spent two years as a Fellow at the California Institute of Technology. In 1933 she received a Guggenheim Fellowship, which enabled her to spend a year abroad at Freiburg. She returned to the US in 1934 and joined the Department of Plant Breeding at Cornell. In 1936, McClintock accepted an Assistant Professorship in the Department of Botany at the University of Missouri, and in 1941, she joined the staff of the Carnegie Institution of Washington in Cold Spring Harbor, New York (now Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory).

McClintock's studies and observations of mutation in kernels of maize (corn), led to her discovery of transposable genetic elements. Although the scientific community largely ignored her concepts, advances in molecular and microbial genetics ultimately proved her findings correct. She is now credited as the discoverer of transposable—or “jumping”—genes, a discovery which is at the very root of much of today's research in genetic engineering.

Numerous foundations and societies have praised McClintock for her research and scholarship. Throughout her life, she received various awards, including the Achievement Award of the American Association of University Women (1947), the Award of Merit by the Botanical Society of America (1957), the Kimber Genetics Award from the National Academy of Sciences (1967), the National Medal of Science (1970), the Lewis S. Rosentiel Award for Distinguished Work in Basic Medical Research (1978), the Louis and Bert Freedman Foundation Award for Research in Biochemistry (1978), the Wolf Prize in Medicine (1981), Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award (1981), and the Lousia Gross Horwitz Prize (1982) for her outstanding research in the "evolution of genetic information and the control of its expression." McClintock was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1983 "for her discovery of mobile genetic elements."

In 1973 Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory honored McClintock by dedicating a building in her name. In 1980, at the University of Colorado, The Genetics Society of America saluted her "for her brilliance, originality, ingenuity and complete dedication to research."

McClintock was awarded honorary doctoral degrees by fifteen universities. She was a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Philosophical Society, as well as several other professional organizations. She was elected Vice President of the Genetics Society of America in 1939 and President in 1945. Between 1963 and 1969, as Special Consultant to the Agricultural Science Program of The Rockefeller Foundation, she was instrumental in advancing the training of geneticists in several Latin American countries.

Even before her discovery of transposable elements in maize, Barbara McClintock was among the world's most respected cytogeneticists. McClintock trained at Cornell, between 1934 and 1936 she worked in Rollins Emerson's lab under a grant that he procured so that she could conduct her own research (Kass, 2023). Rollins Emerson was one of the two foremost maize geneticists in the country (the other being Louis Stadler). Her colleagues at Cornell included George Beadle and Marcus Rhoades. She may also have met Milislav Demerec, who received his Ph.D. under Emerson in 1923. Shortly after receiving her doctorate, McClintock began work with Harriet Creighton. Together they demonstrated that genetic crossing over was accompanied by physical crossing over of the chromosomes (the formation of chiasmata was made by Janssens in 1909). With this, McClintock and Creighton beat by a matter of weeks the German Drosophila geneticist Curt Stern, who made a similar finding in flies independently. McClintock grew interested in the responses of the genome to traumatic events. She formed an association with Lewis Stadler at the University of Missouri. Stadler had shown the mutagenic effects of X rays on corn (at about the same time as Hermann Muller did with fruit flies) and sent McClintock irradiated strains of maize. With these, McClintock identified ring chromosomes, which she soon realized were a special case of chromosomes broken by radiation; the broken ends sometimes fused to one another and formed a ring. This led McClintock to hypothesize the existence of a special structure at the chromosome tip, which she called the telomere, that would maintain chromosome stability.

Stadler brought McClintock to the University of Missouri in 1936, where she continued work on broken chromosomes. There she described the breakage-fusion-bridge (bfb) cycle, a repeating pattern of chromosome behavior that was sometimes triggered by an initial breakage. In the bfb cycle, broken chromosomes might fuse to the other member of the pair, forming a bridge that was then ripped apart at meiosis (or, in another form of the bfb cycle, at mitosis), thus beginning the cycle again.

For a variety of reasons, not least being McClintock's rivalry with Missouri geneticist Mary Guthrie, a tenured position was not forthcoming at Missouri. McClintock spent the summer of 1941 at Cold Spring Harbor as the guest of summer investigator Marcus Rhoades. McClintock never left. Demerec, by now director of the CIW Department of Genetics, arranged a temporary, and then a full-time appointment for her.

At Cold Spring Harbor, McClintock discovered in some of her bfb strains some bizarre genetic behavior. Certain mutable genes appeared to be transferred from cell to cell during development of the corn kernel. As she later said, "one cell gained what the other cell lost." Though her initial discovery was made in 1944, McClintock confirmed, controlled, and extended her observations for six years, publishing at last in 1950.

Her first public presentation of transposable elements was at the 1951 Cold Spring Harbor Symposium. McClintock expected recognition and acceptance, but instead was greeted with silence and derision. Almost certainly, much of this response resulted from the mutual admiration of McClintock and Richard Goldschmidt. The cantankerous Goldschmidt was a gadfly of genetics, known for denying the status quo. Since 1938 he had been arguing against the standard theory of the gene, promoting instead a holistic, chromosomal theory in which a gene's position relative to other genes determined its function. Goldschmidt fought one of the main advocates of the gene theory, George Beadle. He saw in McClintock's data new support for his theory; in return, McClintock saw that Goldschmidt's concept of the chromosome as the basic unit of heredity was more consonant with her transposable "controlling elements" than was the standard Beadle and Tatum model of the gene. With McClintock making her allegiance to Goldschmidt so plain, it is little wonder many scientists denied or ignored her! In reality, scientists had immense respect for McClintock's data; it was her conclusions they doubted.

The development of molecular techniques that allowed isolation of transposable elements, as well as their discovery in other organisms, including fruit flies and yeast, led to the eventual acceptance of transposable elements as a general and important phenomenon. Today, they are known to be widespread, occurring even in humans.

Beginning in the late 1950s, McClintock spent many seasons in South America and Mexico, studying the "evolution" of agricultural maize by Indians. This represented an early and exhaustive example of ethno botany, and was work McClintock was quite proud of, though less known for.

McClintock died in Huntington, New York on September 2, 1992

Works Cited

Kass, Lee. "R.A. Emerson." Received by Stephanie Satalino, August 24, 2023.


83 Boxes


The Barbara McClintock Collection consists of 10 series pertinent to the life of a world-renowned plant geneticist and Nobel prize winner. There are materials relevant to both her personal life as well as her scientific work. Within the series, you will find correspondence, published materials, photographs, slides, negatives, artifacts, and memorabilia.

Arrangement Note

Series 2: Correspondence and Series 5, Subseries 3: Reprints - Works by Others are arranged alphabetically. The rest of the collection is aranged chronologically.


The papers of Barbara McClintock were given to the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Library and Archives in 1983 by Dr. McClintock and the Public Affairs Office of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. An additional accession of her office and laboratory equipment were given to the Archives in 2009 from the Dolan DNA Learning Center.

Related Materials

The following collections at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Archives house materials related to the Barbara McClintock Collection: Carnegie Institution of Washington at Cold Spring Harbor Administrative Records 1898-1977, The Long Island Biological Association, The Biological Laboratory Collection 1923-1962, the Charles Davenport Papers, the Audio Visual Collection, James D. Watson Papers. These can be accessed through the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Digital Collections

Scholars should also refer to other institutions including the American Philosophical Society, Barbara McClintock Papers, The Smithsonian Institution of Washington Libraries, Cornell University, The Division of Rare and Manuscript Collection, the National Library of Medicine, Profiles in Science, The Barbara McClintock Papers and the Smithsonian Institution of Washington.


This project “Arrangement and Description of the Hidden Collections of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory’s Legacy Institutions, 1890-1974” was made possible in part by a grant from the Documentary Heritage Program of the New York State Archives, a program of the State Education Department.

Barbara McClintock Collection
Finding Aid Prepared by Clare Clark. Revised and updated by Kate Pigliacelli in 2023.
Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note

Repository Details

Part of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Archives Repository

Library & Archives
Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory
One Bungtown Rd
Cold Spring Harbor NY 11724 USA