November 23, 2015

Campaign Proposes Placing Cornell Alumna on $10 Bill

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The Barbara on the Bill campaign aims to put Barbara McClintock ’23 M.A. ’25 Ph.D. ’27, a scientist known for overcoming discrimination in the field of genetics and making groundbreaking discoveries, on the $10 bill.

Don Gibson, a Ph.D. student in the genome center and plant biology department at the University of California, Davis, started the campaign to emphasize that Americans value achievements in science and technology.

Although many have called for another political or civil leader, such as Susan B. Anthony or Harriet Tubman, to represent American women on the $10 bill, Gibson advocates a scientific figure to celebrate American accomplishments in a different field.

“America has only had one theme on its currency — great political and civil achievements,” he said. “There’s no greater venue to share a value of American achievement and accomplishment then on our currency. America has unlocked the atom, created light, put a man on the moon and unlocked the human genome.”

Gibson also said he believes displaying a scientist on American currency will help humanize the public’s image of scientists who are often pictured as intelligent but austere figures.

“[We could] change the average perception of what a scientist is,” Gibson said. “They are human beings who have all struggled, who have tried to prosper and if we can share an image of not only a great scientist but a great American women of science, we can change the perspective [on] science and the people who do it.”

Gibson also said he hopes having an image of a female scientist on the $10 bill will show that women can be just as successful and influential as the men who currently dominate the STEM fields at a 3-to-1 ratio.

McClintock became the first woman to win a nobel prize in medicine or physiology in 1983, and remains the only woman to have received an unshared award in this category, according to The American Society of Plant Biologists. The prize recognized her discovery of genetic transposition, a process which shows genes changing their positions on a chromosome.

Today, the knowledge of jumping genes has aided scientists in the development of many medicines and in the study of cancer and genetic diseases, according to the National Women’s Hall of Fame.  It was not until the 1960s that her idea of transposable genes was finally widely accepted, and this was only after other scientists observed the same phenomenon in bacteria.

Although men often posed the greatest obstacle to McClintock’s work, they were also often her greatest proponents, according to Prof. Thomas Fox, genetics.

“McClintock was discriminated against by institutions and their rules,” he said. “The male scientists in her field who knew her were trying to help her fight these rules.”

Fox said McClintock’s male coworkers soon came to respect and admire her work in the lab.

“They recognized and respected her brilliance in the work on chromosomes that fit the paradigms, which she did long before she started the most famous stuff on transposable elements,” Fox said. “They respected her to the point that when she started reporting the radical notion of transposable elements, those who knew her thought she must be onto something even though they didn’t really understand what it was.”

Fox said he was struck by McClintock’s brilliance, pulling from his own personal encounters with McClintock when she was an A.D. White visiting professor at Cornell.

“My recollections are that she listened quietly and intently to descriptions of experiments very far from her own kind of research, and then asked the kinds of penetrating questions one would expect from an expert in the field,” Fox said. “Nothing new here; she was wicked smart.”

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