Nathaniel Comfort
The Tangled Field: Barbara McClintock's Search for the Patterns of Genetic Control

The Tangled Field is perhaps the most unusual biography I have ever read. Unusual in the sense that it doesn't fit the mold of typical biographies. Generally, biographies come in one of three formats--popular (usually full of praise for the subject), scientific/technical (pretty dry but sometimes fascinating in the sense of being able to watch the development of discovery), or titillating/damning (in which the author pretty much bashes the subject or otherwise tries to uncover some hidden/shameful secrets or questionable personality traits or events). In a sense, Comfort combines all three elements into one book for McClintock's biography.

If you want the popular biography stick with just the first 30 and last 30 pages. If you want the technical, read just the middle six or so chapters (most of the book). And although Comfort doesn't dig or invent stories about McClintock's secret life as a lesbian (she doesn't appear to have had any sexual urges throughout her entire life) or some other "dark" secret, he does spend a great deal of time debunking her myth. She wasn't marginal, deviant, or ignored in the genetics community. She received achievements and was recognized throughout the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, contrary to the myth. Transposition was neither ignored nor disbelieved. Nor was it necessarily 30 years ahead of its time as others were coming up with similar findings (without even reading about McClintock's findings) around the same time period. Transposition wasn't the focus of her career. McClintock's primary research interest, her theory of developmental control, was found to be incorrect so her Nobel prize was not a legitimation of her life's work. The reason she received the Nobel prize was, in part, because the nomination letters ignored her discredited theory and practically re-wrote history to make it seem as if her work was the forerunner of the bacterial conception of transposition.

The biography is not entirely critical, harsh, or otherwise damning of McClintock and her accomplishments. There is much praise and recognition of her abilities and achievements. The bulk is too dense for most non-specialists to casually read and enjoy, but the details and technical coverage are probably necessary in some respects for the overall analysis. I would have liked to see more on her dabblings in ESP and UFOs. I disagree with Comfort's conclusion in these areas. (i.e., that it takes as much faith to disbelieve in them as it does to believe in them and hence "this version of mysticism is simply an appreciation of the complexity of nature") While not being the most readable biography from cover to cover, a well documented, de-mythologizing story makes for an interesting read.

from the publisher:
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. That same year, Evelyn Fox Keller's highly publicized biography, A Feeling for the Organism was published. 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, contrary to various accounts, including Keller's, 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 C. Comfort is Deputy Director, Center for History of Recent Science, George Washington University.

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

Barbara McClintock was one of the most fascinating, brilliant and influential geneticists of the 20th century, the century of genetics. Nathaniel Comfort has written an elegant and eminently readable biography that, for the first time, does justice to her science while at the same time separating the reality of her life and work from the myths that grew around her. This is a great book for anyone with an interest in the history of ideas about genes, genomes, development and biological regulation; it is also a great book for anyone with an interest in the interplay of intellect, craftsmanship, intuition and insight, as well as friendship, gender, and personality in the intellectual life of a great scientist. --David Botstein, Stanford University

Barbara McClintock was a well known and outstanding woman scientist. When late in life she won the Nobel Prize, she became the subject of a set of myths, both personal and scientific to which even she contributed. By carefully documenting her science and her life, Nathaniel Comfort shows that she was a Giant in every way for whom the myths only detracted from understanding her true persona. --Norton D. Zinder, Rockefeller University

Nathaniel Comfort's The Tangled Field appears to focus on the scientist Barbara McClintock, but most directly concerns the reputation of her science. Comfort strives to demythologize this supposedly underappreciated, marginalized female corn geneticist. McClintock's mythologizers (including McClintock, Comfort argues) have seen her work on transposition as misunderstood and underappreciated. In contrast, Comfort demonstrates that her research was understood, and was appreciated. Rather, it was McClintock's efforts to promote her work on 'controlling elements' as the key to understanding development that failed to win the acceptance she sought. Well written and unselfconscious, this is important history of science. --Jane Maienschein, Arizona State University

An exceptionally well written account of one of the most important, yet misunderstood, figures in the recent history of science. Comfort provides the first serious, focused study of the development of Barbara McClintock's ideas. In this intellectual biography, he concentrates on what made McClintock an important figure in twentieth century genetics: her science. --Vassiliki Betty Smocovitis, University of Florida