All three winners of this year's Nobel Prize for Medicine are eminent scientists, but Mario Capecchi is the one with the spiral-staircase story: the starving, homeless Italian street kid who found his way to America, to Harvard, to Utah, ever the refugee, before finally arriving at eternal glory and the Nobel Prize. It's in many ways a familiar tale, Oliver Twist meets Albert Einstein, the pilgrim who comes to the promised land expecting, as he says, "the roads to be paved in gold. What I found actually was just opportunity." But his story also has enough nice serrated edges to challenge our theories about genes and genius and what really makes us who we are.
You could say the visionary geneticist had a clear genetic edge. Capecchi's grandmother was a painter, his uncle a renowned physicist, and his mother Lucy Ramberg an expat American poet living in a chalet in the Italian Alps when Mario was born in 1937. She had fallen in with a group of bohemian writers who believed, her son says with just a trace of bemusement, that "they could wipe out Fascism and Nazism with a pen." After the Gestapo came in 1941 to take her to Dachau, Mario landed on the streets. He was 4 years old.
All children have their own normal; they have not yet seen any worlds other than their own. Capecchi's world was an uncontrolled experiment in resilience. "I never felt sorry for myself," he recalls. "Children are remarkably adaptable. Put them in a situation, and they simply will do whatever it is they need to do."
For his band of urchins, that meant a cunning, methodical pursuit of food and shelter. They worked together like raptors, one child distracting the street vendor so another could steal the fruit. Capecchi finally landed in a hospital in Reggio Emilia, where he could starve more systematically. The daily ration was a piece of bread and some chicory coffee, and to keep the children from running off, "they took all of our clothes away." He lay on a bed with no sheets, no blankets, feverish with hunger. It was there he learned the art of patient plotting as he imagined all the ways he might escape and the obstacles he'd face to do so.
In 1945, when American soldiers liberated Dachau, Lucy went hunting for her son. She scoured hospital records, searching for more than a year before she tracked him down. It was on his 9th birthday, Oct. 6, 1946, that the mother he scarcely recognized arrived, a new Tyrolean outfit in hand, including the hat with the feather. She took him to Rome, where he had his first bath in six years, and ultimately to the New World, where they settled in a Quaker commune outside Philadelphia.
Creativity, Capecchi once said, comes from "the abrasive juxtaposition" of life experiences. His old life and new one certainly rubbed each other raw. Some teachers wrote off the feral boy who had never set foot in a school and spoke no English; but others gave him paints and told him to make murals to communicate. One day he was beating up the other third-graders, since that was what he knew how to do. And soon he was beating up older kids on behalf of his peers. "That gave me a position," he says, "some social standing."
Capecchi ultimately found his way to Harvard, the center of the universe in the early days of molecular biology. But he felt crowded by colleagues whose rivalries consumed them as much as their research. So he set off for the University of Utah, where the sight lines suited him better and collegiality was the key to success. He lives in a house high over a canyon. "I love looking across long distances," he says. "I think it sort of opens up my mind."
This vista is necessary for his work as well as his soul. Capecchi looks at science as a series of circles: the smallest circle is the one in which everyone is doing the same thing. As you move farther out, "fewer people are willing to go there, but you're charting new areas. Go too far, step out of bounds, and you're in science fiction. So you have to be careful. But you want to be as close to the edge as possible." When he first proposed manipulating mouse genes to help model disease, the nih gatekeepers thought he was over the line. "Not worthy of pursuit," they said of his grant proposals. Happily, Capecchi ignored them.
Of course the edge looks different to him, since he has lived on it. It's a cliché that strength comes from adversity. But clichés are often just hard truths tamed by familiarity. Maybe he triumphed in spite of his ordeals, not because of them. There is no control group, he observes, that lets you measure what you missed. In raising his own daughter, he felt the pull to protect her, even as he wondered at the cost. "Maybe a few hard knocks ..." but his voice trails off. He didn't want to experiment on her.