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The Tangled Field

The Tangled Field

Barbara McClintock’s Search for the Patterns of Genetic Control

Nathaniel Comfort

ISBN 9780674011083

Publication date: 04/30/2003

This biographical study illuminates one of the most important yet misunderstood figures in the history of science. Barbara McClintock (1902-1992), a geneticist who integrated classical genetics with microscopic observations of the behavior of chromosomes, was regarded as a genius and as an unorthodox, nearly incomprehensible thinker. In 1946, she discovered mobile genetic elements, which she called "controlling elements." Thirty-seven years later, she won a Nobel Prize for this work, becoming the third woman to receive an unshared Nobel in science. Since then, McClintock has become an emblem of feminine scientific thinking and the tragedy of narrow-mindedness and bias in science.

Using McClintock's research notes, newly available correspondence, and dozens of interviews with McClintock and others, Comfort argues that McClintock's work was neither ignored in the 1950s nor wholly accepted two decades later. Nor was McClintock marginalized by scientists; throughout the decades of her alleged rejection, she remained a distinguished figure in her field. Comfort replaces the "McClintock myth" with a new story, rich with implications for our understanding of women in science and scientific creativity.


  • Nathaniel Comfort has woven the disparate threads of science, biography, feminism, and myth into a powerful narrative that will stand the test of time as the definitive McClintock. As this remarkable story unfolds, Comfort presents her discoveries in their rich historical context and unapologetically describes flaws and fallacies as well as the awe inspiring prophetic power of her experiments with Indian corn. Through painstaking analysis of her original research notes, as well as anecdotes and interviews with close friends and contemporaries, he has dissected her unique but rigorous approach to give an unparalleled insight into one of the great thinkers of her age. At the same time, he provides a poignant and vivid portrait of a surprisingly warm and personable woman instantly recognizable to those who knew and loved her.

    —Rob Martienssen, PhD, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory

Book Details

  • 368 pages
  • 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press