Baby with “Unusual Fortitude” Gets Name Changed

Barbara McClintock in 1947Maize cytogeneticist Barbara McClintock was born on June 16, 1902, in Hartford, Connecticut.

She discovered transposons or “jumping genes” in the 1940s. For this discovery of mobile genetic elements, she won the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1983, becoming the very first woman to receive an unshared Nobel Prize in that category.

She wasn’t born a “Barbara,” though. Her birth name was Eleanor.

Her parents changed her name because they thought “Eleanor” wasn’t a good fit to her personality:

By McClintock’s own account, her “capacity to be alone” began in the cradle: “My mother used to put a pillow on the floor and give me one toy and just leave me there. She said I didn’t cry, didn’t call for anything.” Her temperament, she says, led her parents to change her name when she was only four months old. Instead of Eleanor, a name they had originally chosen as especially feminine and delicate, they soon decided that “Barbara” would be more appropriate for a girl with such unusual fortitude. It sounded to them more masculine.

Barbara, the third of four children, had siblings named Marjorie, Mignon, and Malcolm.


Image: Smithsonian Institution Archives

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