Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 477:
MARY-CLAIRE KING

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 477.

Today, a tale of breast cancer and Argentinean children. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

My grandmother went to Carleton College. She was a music teacher, a writer, and the mother of five. She was a real lady: tough, gentle, and always a radical. That's why a recent article on Mary-Claire King got my attention.

King also went to Carleton. After she finished in math, in 1966, she went on to my old school -- to Berkeley. She was drawn there by the radical politics in the '60s. But she did her PhD in genetics. She went in fighting the war in Viet Nam. She came out armed to fight a much larger enemy.

She went after breast cancer. That's the most common cancer a woman faces -- if she doesn't smoke. It could be a genetic problem. Find the gene, and maybe you can find the cure.

So King turned her math on gene tracking. At first the task was, in her words, like looking for an address in a strange town at night, with street lights every ten blocks. But new work in molecular biology was putting in more street lights all the time.

She finally cracked the problem. She found a dominant gene that puts at least half the breast cancer victims at risk. Now she's tracking genes that put the other half at risk.

Soon after Mary-Claire King began her work in America, a terrible dictatorship took over Argentina. Soldiers dragged off whole families. They tortured and murdered all but the youngest children. The government gave them to childless officials. They let pregnant prisoners give birth before they murdered them.

The strongest revolutionaries against that regime were the now famous, and astonishingly brave, grandmothers. When the government fell, the grandmothers came to King. To get the children back, they had to make kidnapping charges stand up in court. They asked for a genetic test to identify their grandchildren.

By now, King could provide it. She developed a mitochondrial DNA test. Her first case was a girl kidnapped when she was two. She won the case. Since then, her tests have identified 48 more children. It was deeply affecting work, but her part is done. She's back to the larger fight -- the one against disease.

And my mind goes back to those strong-minded grandmothers. On a hunch, I lay my own grandmother's picture next to King's. I am astonished. They're so alike -- the same nose, the same sure jaw. But most alike are their penetrating eyes -- cool, clear eyes that look to the middle of things.

Maybe that's it! Perhaps they share the vision of creative people everywhere -- people who do not accept the world as it is. These are eyes that see through -- to the way things ought to be.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


My material on Mary-Claire King is taken from

Noonan, D., Genes at War. Discover, Special 10th Anniversary Issue, October 1990, pp. 46-52.

King's revolutionary credentials reach much further than I can tell in three minutes. While she was still a student, she marched and picketed against the Viet Nam War. She worked with Nader on the effect of plant pesticides on humnas. And she worked in Chile where she watched students being murdered during the coup against Allende. Her involvement with the grandmothers was a hard emotional experience for her.

Carleton College is a highly regarded liberal arts school in Northfield, Minnesota. Before my grandmother studied music education there, she witnessed the Jesse James bank robbery along with her father, Charles Augustus Wheaton. He was the newspaper editor and a judge. His revolutionary credentials were pretty good, too. He worked the Northern end of the underground railway before the Civil War.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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