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Martha McClintock


Training Location(s):

PhD, University of Pennsylvania, (1974)

BA, Wellesley College, (1969)

Primary Affiliation(s):

University of Chicago, (1976-present)

Institute for Mind and Biology, (1999-present)

Centre for Interdisciplinary Health Disparities Research

Media Links:
Professional Website

Martha McClintock at University of Chicago Institute for Mind and Biology




Career Focus: Biopsychology; health and social motivation; effect of pheromones on human physiology and behavior.


Martha McClintock has been interested in molecular biology from a young age. When she was a child her father, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor, took her to see James Watson and Francis Crick, who discovered the double helix structure of DNA. McClintock aspired to go into science despite the era's inhospitability towards women having scientific careers. When applying to university, McClintock decided on Wellesley College “because I knew I could get a good education there without the pressures of 'girls don't do science.'” She did face some discrimination during her early graduate training at Harvard University where she was barred from the stacks at Widener Library and was forced to sit at a card table in the Faculty Club vestibule when the chairman of the psychology department took the first year students to lunch (women were forbidden to enter the dining room). However, this did not faze McClintock, who went on to become an eminent scientist, specializing in research on human pheromones. Her ambition was supported by Harvard professor and sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson, who encouraged McClintock to publish her first scientific article at the age of twenty-three.


McClintock began her studies on the relationship between biology and social interaction as an undergraduate at Wellesley College. She was awarded a National Science Foundation internship at the Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine in the summer of 1968. During her internship, McClintock learned of the link between mammalian pheromones and the synchronization of estrous cycles in mice. Upon returning to Wellesley, McClintock conducted a study for her senior thesis to see if a parallel process of menstrual synchrony could be observed in humans. Her study, “Menstrual Synchrony and Suppression,” revealed that women living together in a Wellesley dormitory menstruated around the same time each month as a result of pheromones that were transmitted through social interaction. This phenomenon was labelled the McClintock Effect but is also commonly referred to as menstrual synchrony. In 1971, McClintock’s study was published in the prestigious journal Nature. McClintock notes that the success of her article in the scientific community was due to the “new idea that a menstrual cycle could be affected by social interactions… I felt that looking at women's menstrual cycles as a purely biological phenomenon, independent of what else women were doing, was wrong.”


In 1974, after transferring from Harvard, McClintock earned her PhD from the University of Pennsylvania. She received a postdoctoral fellowship from the National Institutes of Health where she was able to extend her research on pheromones by conducting experiments to see if they affected human behavior. Her article, “Psychological State and Mood Effects of Steroidal Chemosignals in Women and Men,” was written with fellow researcher and former graduate student Suma Jacob and tested women’s and men’s responses to the steroids androstadienone and estratetraene. These steroids are produced naturally in the body and had been reported to enhance sexual attractiveness. Previous research had also reported that the male steroid androstadienone increases women’s sexual arousal with the female steroid estratetraene having a similar effect on men. However, McClintock’s study found the steroids produced other behavioural and psychological effects. Both steroids were found to prevent a woman’s mood from declining when she was placed in a situation that caused irritation and depression. Opposite effects were reported in men; exposure to the steroids decreased their moods. This study revealed that in group interactions, unconscious chemical signals are transmitted between individuals and affect their psychological states. McClintock’s ground-breaking research has led her to “announcing a class of compounds that we’re calling natural chemo-signals, if you will, that are produced by humans and can affect the psychological functioning of other humans. And not just in a simple sexual attractant system, but in a broader way to affect emotional states and mood.” She has won several awards for her research on pheromones including the American Psychological Association’s Distinguished Scientific Award for Early Career Contributions to Psychology, the Wellesley College Alumnae Achievement Award, and a MERIT award from the National Institute of Mental Health.


In 1976, McClintock began teaching at the University of Chicago and is currently the David Lee Shillinglaw Distinguished Service Professor in Psychology. McClintock runs a laboratory where she conducts pheromone research on Norway rats to provide insights about human biopsychology. Her lab mimics the natural environment for the rats, and is strewn with litter and pipes.  McClintock stresses the importance of the natural environment and how it interacts with biology and has devoted her career to bridging psychology and the biological sciences. This interest began in the 1970s when as McClintock states “some scientists were only looking at bodily mechanisms. And others were looking at the natural world. I wanted to put everything together. It's pretty obvious that what happens inside the skin is affected by what happens outside, which is why biologists need to work with social scientists.” McClintock founded the Institute for Mind and Biology lab in 1999 based upon these values. She continues to approach biological issues by situating them in their psychological and social contexts.   


McClintock is the co-director of the Centre for Interdisciplinary Health Disparities Research (CIHDR) and holds joint appointments on the Committees on Neurobiology and Evolutionary Biology and in the Departments of Psychology and Comparative Human Development. She is also actively involved in many scientific associations including the American Psychological Society, the Animal Behavior Society, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the International Academy of Sex Research, American Association for the Advancement of Science as well as being an elected member of the National Academy of Sciences' Institute of Medicine, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. McClintock continues to teach and conduct research at the University of Chicago where she lectures on behavioural endocrinology, genetics, and psychoneuroimmunology.


by Amanda Jenkins (2014)

To cite this article, see Credits

Selected Works:
By Martha McClintock

Blumberg, M., J. Mennella, H. Moltz, and M. K. McClintock, (1992). Facultative sex-ratio adjustment in Norway rats: Litters born asynchronously are female biased. Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, 31, 401-408.


Hornig, L., and M. K. McClintock, (1994). Unmasking sex ratio biasing through targeted analysis. Animal Behavior, 47, 1224-1226.


Jacob, S., McClintock, M. K., Zelano, B. and Ober, C. (2002). Paternally inherited HLA alleles are associated with women's choice of male odor. Nature Genetics, 30, 175-179.


LeFevre, J. and M. K. McClintock, (1988). Reproductive senescence in female rats: A longitudinal study of individual differences in estrous cycles and behavior. Biology of Reproduction, 38, 780-789.


McClintock, M. K. (1971). Menstrual synchrony and suppression. Nature, 291, 244-245.


McClintock, M. K., (1983). Pheromonal regulation of the ovarian cycle: Enhancement, suppression and synchrony. In J.G. Vandenbergh (Ed.), Pheromones and reproduction in mammals, (113-149). New York: Academic Press.


McClintock, M. K., (1984). Group mating in the domestic rat as a context for sexual selection: Consequences for analysis of sexual behavior and neuroendocrine responses. Advances in the Study of Behavior, 14, 1-50. New York: Academic Press.


McClintock, M. K., (1987). A functional approach to the behavioral endocrinology of rodents. In D. Crews (Ed.), Psychobiology of reproduction (176-203). New York: Prentice-Hall. 


McClintock, M. K. (1999). Reproductive biology. Pheromones and regulation of ovulation. Nature, 401, 232-233.


McClintock, M. K. and Herdt, G. (1996). Rethinking puberty: The development of sexual attraction. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 5(6), 178-183.


Schank, J., and M. K. McClintock, (1992). A coupled-oscillator model of ovarian cycle synchrony among female rats. Journal of Theoretical Biology, 157, 317-463.


Stern, K. and McClintock, M. K. (1998). Regulation of ovulation by human pheromones. Nature, 392(6672), 177-179.

About Martha McClintock

Angier, N. (1995, May 30). Scientist at work: Martha K. McClintock; How biology affects behavior and vice versa. The New York Times


Dreifus, C. (2004, November 16). A conversation with: Martha McClintock; The chemistry (literally) of social interaction. The New York Times

Gorner, P. (2000, March 17). Sixth sense detects pheromones, U. of C. researchers show. Chicago Tribune News


Pettit, M. & Vigor, J. (2015). Pheromones, feminism, and the many lives of menstrual synchrony. BioSocieties, 10, 271-294.

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