COLD SPRING HARBOR, N.Y. -- Geneticist Barbara McClintock, the first woman to single-handedly win a Nobel Prize for Medicine, was denounced in 1951 as 'absolutely mad' for the scientific findings that eventually led to the award.
Dr. McClintock, 81, who works at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, learned from a radio broadcast that she had won the Prize announced Monday in Stockholm, Sweden.
Nobel officials said her work was 'the second great discovery of our time' in genetics after the work of Gregor Mendel, the 19th century Austrian monk who first outlined the idea of heredity by studying garden peas.
Her discovery of 'jumping genes,' also known as 'mobile genetic elements,' came more than 30 years ago when Dr. McClintock was investigating why some corn cobs show patterns of colored kernels.
In 1951, she said, her colleagues denounced her findings. 'They said I was crazy -- absolutely mad. But when you know you are right you don't care.'
Dr. McClintock learned the color-determining genes can 'jump' from one cell to another. This phenomenon was later used to understand how faulty growth-determining genes can move into a healthy cell during the spread of cancer through the body.
Asked how she felt about the publicity generated by the prize, she said, 'You have to put up with it. But it is more important that you get the respect of your colleagues.'
Dr. McClintock is the 58th American to win the Medicine award. She is the third woman since it was establisOed in 1901 and the first woman to receive it without sharing the honor with colleagues.
Ms. McClintock praised the independence given her in the 42 years she has worked at the laboratory.
'If I had been working at another place I would have been fired,' she said. 'They never said a word to me. They just let me do what I want to do.'
On Monday, her colleagues could not notify her of the honor because she has no telephone in her apartment on the laboratory grounds.
'I don't have anything like that. I want to be free,' Dr. McClintock said. The excitement of the morning did nothing to interrupt her routine. Soon after learning of her honor, she took a morning walk to pick walnuts.