Tuesday, June 14, 2011

An Incredible Human Story

I was reading articles based on material from Tim Harford's new book Adapt: Why Success Always Starts With Failure when I was dazzled by the story of Mario R. Capecchi, one of the 3 winners of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2007.

Here is his life story as told in Wikipedia:
Mario Capecchi was born in the Italian city of Verona as the only child of Luciano Capecchi, an Italian airman who would be later reported as missing in action while manning an anti-aircraft gun in the Western Desert Campaign, and Lucy Ramberg, an American-born daughter of Impressionist painter Lucy Dodd Ramberg and German archaeologist Walter Ramberg. During World War II, his mother was sent to the Dachau concentration camp as punishment for pamphleteering and belonging to an anti-Fascist group. Prior to her arrest she had made contingency plans by selling her belongings and giving the proceeds to a peasant family near Bolzano to provide housing for her only child. However, after one year, the money was exhausted and the family was unable to care for him. At four-and-a-half years old he was left to fend for himself on the streets of northern Italy for the next four years, living in various orphanages and roving through towns with groups of other homeless children.

He almost died of malnutrition. His mother, meanwhile, had been freed from Dachau and began a year-long search for him. She finally found him in a hospital bed in Reggio Emilia, ill with a fever and subsisting on a daily bowl of chicory coffee and bread crust. She took him to Rome, where he had his first bath in six years.

In 1946 his uncle, Edward Ramberg, an American physicist at RCA, sent his mother money to return to the United States. He and his mother moved to Pennsylvania to live at an intentional cooperative community called Bryn Gweled, which had been co-founded by his uncle. (Capecchi's other maternal uncle, Walter Ramberg, was also an American physicist who served as the tenth president of the Society for Experimental Stress Analysis.) He graduated from George School, a Quaker boarding school in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, in 1956.

Mario Capecchi received his Bachelor of Science in chemistry and physics in 1961 from Antioch College in Ohio. Capecchi came to MIT as a graduate student intending to study physics and mathematics, but during the course of his studies, he became interested in molecular biology. He subsequently transferred to Harvard to join the lab of James D. Watson, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA. Capecchi received his Ph.D. in biophysics in 1967 from Harvard University, with his doctoral thesis completed under the tutelage of Watson.

Capecchi was a Junior Fellow of the Society of Fellows at Harvard University from 1967 to 1969. In 1969 he became an Assistant Professor in the Department of Biochemistry at Harvard Medical School. He was promoted to Associate Professor in 1971. In 1973 he joined the faculty at the University of Utah. Since 1988 Capecchi has also been an investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences. He has given a talk for Duke University's Program in Genetics and Genomics as part of their Distinguished Lecturer Series.

After the Nobel committee publicly announced that Capecchi had won the Nobel prize, an Austrian woman named Marlene Bonelli claimed that Capecchi was her long-lost half-brother. In May 2008, Capecchi met with Bonelli, 69, in northern Italy, and confirmed that she was his sister.
And here is his story as told by Tim Harford:
Mario Capecchi's earliest memory is of German officers knocking on the door of his mother's chalet in the Italian Alps and arresting her. They sent her to a concentration camp, probably Dachau. Mario, who had been taught to speak both Italian and German, understood exactly what was being said by the SS officers. He was 3½.

Mario's mother, Lucy, was a poet and an antifascist campaigner who had refused to marry his abusive father, Luciano, an officer in Mussolini's air force. One can only imagine the scandal in prewar, Catholic, fascist Italy. Expecting trouble, Lucy had made preparations by selling many of her possessions and entrusting the proceeds to a local peasant family. When she disappeared, the family took Mario in. For a time he lived like an Italian farmer's son, learning rural life at an apron hem.

After a year, his mother's money appears to have run out. Mario left the village. He remembers a brief time living with his father and deciding he would rather live on the streets: "Amidst all of the horrors of war, perhaps the most difficult for me to accept as a child was having a father who was brutal to me." Luciano was killed shortly afterward in aerial combat.

And so Mario Capecchi became a street urchin at the age of 4½. Most of us are content if, at the age of 4½, our children are capable of eating lunch without spilling it or confident enough to be dropped off at the nursery without tears. Mario survived on scraps, joined gangs, and drifted in and out of orphanages. At the age of 8 he spent a year in the hospital, probably suffering from typhoid, passing in and out of feverish oblivion each day. Conditions were grim: no blankets, no sheets, beds jammed together, nothing to eat but a crust of bread and some chicory coffee. Many Italian orphans died in such hospitals.

Mario survived. On his 9th birthday, a strange-looking woman arrived at the hospital asking to see him. It was his mother, unrecognizable after five years in a concentration camp. She had spent the last 18 months searching for him. She bought him a suit of traditional Tyrolean clothes—he still has the cap and its decorative feather—and brought him with her to America.

Two decades later, Mario was at Harvard University, determined to study molecular biology under the great James Watson, co-discoverer of DNA. Not a man to hand out compliments easily, Watson once said Capecchi "accomplished more as a graduate student than most scientists accomplish in a lifetime." He had also advised the young Capecchi that he would be "fucking crazy" to pursue his studies anywhere other than in the cutting-edge intellectual atmosphere of Harvard.

Still, after a few years, Capecchi had decided that Harvard was not for him. Despite great resources, inspiring colleagues and a supportive mentor in Watson, he found the Harvard environment demanded results in too much of a hurry. That was fine, if you wanted to take predictable steps along well-signposted pathways. But Capecchi felt that if you wanted to do great work, to change the world, you had to give yourself space to breathe. Harvard, he thought, had become "a bastion of short-term gratification." Off he went instead to the University of Utah, where a brand-new department was being set up. He had spotted, in Utah, a Galapagan island on which to develop his ideas.
And here is Capecchi's story as told by himself in his autobiography at the Nobel Prize site:
I was born in Verona, Italy on October 6, 1937. Fascism, Nazism, and Communism were raging through the country. My mother, Lucy Ramberg, was a poet; my father, Luciano Capecchi, an officer in the Italian Air Force. This was a time of extremes, turmoil and juxtapositions of opposites. They had a passionate love affair, and my mother wisely chose not to marry him. This took a great deal of courage on her part. It embittered my father.

I have only a few pictures of my mother. She was a beautiful woman with a passion for languages and a flair for the dramatic (see Figure 1). This picture was taken when she was 19. She grew up, with her two brothers, in a villa in Florence, Italy. There were magnificent gardens, a nanny, gardeners, cooks, house cleaners, and private tutors for languages, literature, history, and the sciences. She was fluent in half a dozen languages. Her father, Walter Ramberg, was an archeologist specializing in Greek antiquities, born and trained in Germany. Her mother was a painter born and raised in Oregon, USA. In her late teens, my grandmother, Lucy Dodd, packed up her steamer trunks and sailed with her mother from Oregon to Florence, Italy, where they settled. My grandmother was determined to become a painter. This occurred near the end of the 19th century, a time when young women were not expected to set off on their own with strong ambitions of developing their own careers.


My mother's love and passion was poetry. She published in German. She received her university training at the Sorbonne in Paris and was a lecturer at that university in literature and languages. At that time, she joined with a group of poets, known as the Bohemians, who were prominent for their open opposition to Fascism and Nazism. In 1937, my mother moved to the Tyrol, the Italian Alps. Figure 4 shows the chalet north of Bolzano, in Wolfgrübben, with my mother in the foreground. We lived in this chalet until I was 3½ years old. In the spring of 1941, German officers came to our chalet and arrested my mother. This is one of my earliest memories. My mother had taught me to speak both Italian and German, and I was quite aware of what was happening. I sensed that I would not see my mother again for many years, if ever. She was incarcerated as a political prisoner in Germany.

I have believed that her place of incarceration was Dachau. This was based on conversations with my uncle Edward, my mother's younger brother. During World War II, my uncle lived in the United States. Throughout these war years, he made many attempts to locate where my mother was being held. The most reliable information indicated that the location was near Munich. Dachau is located near Munich and was built to hold political prisoners. My mother survived her captivity, but after the war, despite my prodding, she refused to talk about her war experiences.

Reporters from the Associated Press (AP) have found records that my mother was indeed a prisoner during the war in Germany. In fact, they have found records of German interest in my mother's political activities preceding 1939. In that year, they had her arrested by the Italian authorities and jailed in Perugia and subsequently released. However, the AP reporters did not find records indicating that my mother was incarcerated in Dachau. Though Germans were noted for their meticulous record keeping, it would be difficult now to evaluate the accuracy of the existing war records, particularly for cases where data is missing. It is clear, however, that exactly where in Germany my mother was held has not yet been determined. Regardless of which prison camp was involved, her experiences were undoubtedly more horrific than mine. She had aged beyond recognition during those five years of internment. Following her release, though she lived until she was 82 years old, she never psychologically recovered from her wartime experiences.

My mother had anticipated her arrest by German authorities. Prior to their arrival, she had sold most of her possessions and gave the proceeds to an Italian peasant family in the Tyrol so that they could take care of me. I lived on their farm for one year. It was a very simple life. They grew their own wheat, harvested it, and took it to the miller to be ground. From the flour they made bread which they took to the baker to be baked. During this time, I spent most of my time with the women of the farm. In the late fall, the grapes were harvested by hand and put into enormous wooden vats. The children, including me, stripped, jumped into the vats and mashed the grapes with our feet. We became squealing masses of purple energy. I still remember the pungent odor and taste of the fresh grapes. Most recently, members of the Dolomiten Press have located this farm and I had the opportunity to visit it. It is still owned by the same family that occupied it when I was there. The old farm house has been taken down and a new one erected. However, the pictures of the old farm house, as well as the surrounding land are remarkably consistent with my memories.

World War II was now fully under way. The American and British forces had landed in Southern Italy and were proceeding northward. Bombings of northern Italian cities were a daily occurrence. As constant reminders of the war, curfews and blackouts were in effect every night; no lights were permitted. In the night we could hear the drone of presumed American and British reconnaissance planes which we nicknamed "Pepe." One hot afternoon, American planes swooped down from the sky and began machine gunning the peasants in the fields. A senseless exercise. A bullet grazed my leg, fortunately not breaking any bones. I still have the scar, which, many years later my daughter proudly had me display to her third-grade class in Utah.

For reasons that have never been clear to me, my mother's money ran out after one year and, at age 4½, I set off on my own. I headed south, sometimes living in the streets, sometimes joining gangs of other homeless children, sometimes living in orphanages, and most of the time being hungry. My recollections of those four years are vivid but not continuous, rather like a series of snapshots. Some of them are brutal beyond description, others more palatable.

There are records in the archives of Ritten, a region of the Southern Alps of Italy, that I left Bozen to go to Reggio Emilia on July 18, 1942. AP reporters exploring this history have suggested that my father came to the farm, picked me up, and that we went together to Reggio Emilia where he was living. I have no memory of his coming to the farm, nor of having travelled with him to Reggio Emilia. I have recently received a letter from a man who remembers me as the youngest member of his street gang operating in Bolzano, which is on the way to Reggio Emilia.

I did end up in Reggio Emilia, which is approximately 160 miles south of Bolzano. I knew that my father lived in Reggio Emilia and I have previously noted that I had lived with him a couple of times from 1942-1946, for a total period of approximately three weeks. The question has been raised why I didn't live with him for a much longer period. The reason was that he was extremely abusive. Amidst all of the horrors of war, perhaps the most difficult for me to accept as a child was having a father who was brutal to me.

Recently, I have also received a very nice letter from the priest in Reggio Emilia who ran the orphanage in which I was eventually placed. I remember him because he was one of the very few men I encountered in Reggio Emilia who showed compassion for the children and took an interest in me. I am surprised, but pleased, that after all these years he still remembers me among the thousands of children he was responsible for over the years. Further, I believe I was at that orphanage for only several months, the first time in the fall of 1945, after which I ran away, followed by a second period, in the same orphanage, in the spring of 1946. But his memory is genuine, for he recounts incidents consistent with my memories that could only have been known through our common experience.

In the spring of 1945, Munich was liberated by the American troops. My mother had survived her captivity and set out to find me. In October 1946, she succeeded. As an example of her flair for the dramatic, she found me on my ninth birthday, and I am sure that this was by design. I did not recognize her. In five years she had aged a lifetime. I was in a hospital when she found me. All of the children in this hospital were there for the same reasons: malnutrition, typhoid, or both. The prospects for most of those children ever leaving that hospital were slim because they had no nourishing food. Our daily diet consisted of a bowl of chicory coffee and a small crust of old bread. I had been in that hospital in Reggio Emilia for what seemed like a year. Scores of beds lined the rooms and corridors of the hospital, one bed touching the next. There were no sheets or blankets. It was easier to clean without them. Our symptoms were monotonously the same. In the morning we awoke fairly lucid. The nurse, Sister Maria, would take our temperature. She promised me that if I could go through one day without a high fever, I could leave the hospital. She knew that without any clothes I was not likely to run away. By late morning, the high, burning fever would return and we would pass into oblivion. Consistent with the diagnosis of typhoid, many years later I received a typhoid/paratyphoid shot, went into shock, and passed out.

The same day that my mother arrived at the hospital, she bought me a full set of new clothes, a Tyrolean outfit complete with a small cap with a feather in it. I still have the hat. We went to Rome to process papers, where I had my first bath in six years, and then on to Naples. My mother's younger brother, Edward, had sent her money to buy two boat tickets to America. I was expecting to see roads paved with gold in America. As it turned out, I found much more: opportunities.

On arriving in America, my mother and I lived with my uncle and aunt, Edward and Sarah Ramberg. Edward, my mother's younger brother was a brilliant physicist. He was a Ph.D. student in quantum mechanics with Arnold Sommerfeld and translated one of Sommerfeld's major texts into English. Among Edward's many contributions was his discovery of how to focus electrons, knowledge which he used in helping to build the first electron microscope at RCA. Edward's books on electron optics have been published in many languages. During my visit to Japan to celebrate the Kyoto Prize, several Japanese physicists approached me to express how grateful they were for my uncle's texts from which they learned electron optics. Another achievement, of which he was less proud was being a principal contributor to the development of both black and white and color television. While I grew up in his home, television was not allowed. Figure 5 shows a photograph of my uncle working in his laboratory.

My aunt and uncle were Quakers and they did not support violence as solutions to political problems anywhere in the world. During World War II, my uncle did alternative service rather than bear arms. He worked in a mental institution in New Hampshire, cleared swamps in the south, and was a guinea pig for the development of vaccines against tropical diseases. After the war he settled in a commune in Pennsylvania, called Bryn Gweled, which he helped found. People of all races and religious affiliations were welcomed in this community. It was a marvelous place for children: it contained thick woods for exploration and had communal activities of all kinds - painting, dance, theater, sports, electronics, and many sessions devoted to the discussion of the major religious philosophies of the world. Every week there were communal work parties, putting in roads, phone lines, and electrical lines, building a community center and so on.

The contrast between living primarily alone in the streets of Italy and living in an intensely cooperative and supportive community in Pennsylvania was enormous. Time was needed for healing and for erasing the images of war from my mind. I remember that for many years after coming to the United States I would go to sleep tossing and turning with such force that by morning the sheets were torn and the bed frame broken. This activity disturbed my aunt and uncle to the extent that Sarah would take me from one child psychologist or psychiatrist, to another. These professionals were not very helpful, but the support of the community was. The nightly activity eventually subsided. There may be lessons to be learned from such experiences for the treatment of the children from Darfur, the Congo, and now Kenya.

Sarah and Edward took on the challenge of converting me into a productive human being. This, I am sure, was a very formidable task. I had received little or no formal education or training for living in a social environment. Quakers do not believe in frills, but rather in a life of service. My aunt and uncle taught me by example. I was given few material goods, but every opportunity to develop my mind and soul. What I made of myself would be entirely up to me. The day after I arrived in America, I went to school. I started in the third grade in the Southampton public school system. Sarah also took on the task of teaching me to read, starting from the very beginning.

The first task was to learn English. I had a marvelous third grade teacher. She was patient and encouraging. The class was studying Holland, so I started participation in class functions by painting a huge mural on butcher block paper with tulips, windmills, children ice skating, children in Dutch costumes, and ships. It was a collage of activities and colors. This did not require verbal communication.

I was a good, but not serious, student in grade school and high school. Academics came easily to me. I attended an outstanding high school, George School, a Quaker school north of Philadelphia. The teachers were superb, challenging, enthusiastic, competent, and caring. They enjoyed teaching. The campus was also magnificent, particularly in the spring when the cherry and dogwood trees were bursting with blossoms. An emphasis on Quaker beliefs permeated all of the academic and sports programs. A favorite period for many, including me, was Quaker meeting, a time set aside for silent meditation, and taking stock of where we were going. My wife and I sent our daughter to George School for her own last two years in high school so that she might also benefit from the personal virtues it promotes, and we think she has.

Sports were very important to me at George School, and physical activity has remained an important activity for me to this day. I played varsity football, soccer, and baseball, and wrestled. I was particularly proficient at wrestling. I enjoyed the drama of a single opponent, as well as the physical and psychological challenges of the sport. After George School, I went to Antioch, a small liberal arts college in Ohio.

At Antioch College I became a serious student, converting to academics all of the energy I had previously devoted to sports. Coming from George School, I carried the charge of making this a better, more equitable world for all people. Most of the problems appeared to be political, so I started out at Antioch majoring in political science. However, I soon became disillusioned with political science since there appeared to be little science to this discipline, so I switched to the physical sciences - physics and chemistry. I found great pleasure in the simplicity and elegance of mathematics and classical physics. I took almost every mathematics, physics, and chemistry course offered at Antioch, including Boolean algebra and topology, electrodynamics, and physical chemistry.

Although I found physics and mathematics intellectually satisfying, it was becoming apparent that what I was learning came from the past. The newest physics that was taught at Antioch was quantum mechanics, a revolution that had occurred in the 1920's and earlier. Also, many frontiers of experimental physics, particularly experimental particle physics, were requiring the use of larger and larger accelerators, which involved bigger and bigger teams of scientists and support groups to execute the experiments. I was looking for a science in which the individual investigator had a more intimate, hands-on involvement with the experiments. Fortunately, Antioch had an outstanding work-study program; one quarter we studied on campus, the next was spent working on jobs related to our fields of interest. The jobs, in my case laboratory jobs, were maintained all over the country, and every three months we packed up our bags and set off for a new city and a new work experience. So one quarter off I went to Boston and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

There I encountered molecular biology as the field was being born (late 1950's). This was a new breed of science and scientist. Everything was new. There were no limitations. Enthusiasm permeated this field. Devotees from physics, chemistry, genetics, and biology joined its ranks. The common premises were that the most complex biological phenomena could, with persistence, be understood in molecular terms and that biological phenomena observed in simple organisms, such as viruses and bacteria, were mirrored in more complex ones. Implicit corollaries to this premise were that whatever was learned in one organism was likely to be directly relevant to others and that similar approaches could be used to study biological phenomena in many organisms. Genetics, along with molecular biology, became the principal means for dissecting complex biological phenomena into workable subunits. Soon all organisms came under the scrutiny of these approaches.

I became a product of the molecular biology revolution. The next generation. As an Antioch college undergraduate, I worked several quarters in Alex Rich's laboratory at MIT. He was an x-ray crystallographer, with very broad interests in molecular biology. While at MIT I was also fortunate to be influenced by Salvador Luria, Cyrus Leventhal and Boris Magasanik, through courses, seminars, and personal discussions. At that time Sheldon Penman and Jim Darnell were also working in Alex Rich's laboratory. When placed in the same room, these two were particularly boisterous, providing comic relief to the fast moving era.

After Antioch, I set off for what I perceived as the "Mecca" of molecular biology, Harvard University. I had interviewed with Professor James D. Watson, of "Watson and Crick" fame, and asked him where should I do my graduate studies. His reply was curt and to the point: "Here. You would be fucking crazy to go anywhere else." The simplicity of the message was very persuasive.
I like the Rashomon effect of seeing his story from three different accounts. Truth is in the telling and each perspective adds a unique layer to the account.

One reason I'm sensitive to this story was that I spent an hour this morning talking to a German immigrant who has retired to my housing complex. His father was a lieutenant in the German army but managed to be in a unit that fought its way west to surrender to somebody other than the Russians. But the cruel joke was that Allied POW camps were cruel. This guy was telling me that the death rates for German soldiers was 30% per year, higher than in combat. Why? Because of residual hatred that purposefully underfed and overworked the prisoners. (I'm still a bit reluctant to believe this but he promises me a book by a French Canadian which documents this and he assures me his father was released from the camps weighing only 90 pounds in late 1947.) I told him a bit about my family's experiences with the war (most of my uncles and aunts served). These personal stories and Capecchi's story underline how cruel our world can be, how little separates us from barbarity, and how easily a society can collapse into mad killing. The nice thing about Capecchi's story is that it shows how resilient the young can be to grave mistreatment. Amazing.

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