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This article is from the In-Depth Report Celebrating The Nobel Prizes

Of Survival and Science

From street waif in war-torn Italy to "knocking out" the genes of mice--Mario R. Capecchi shows how genius springs from the most unlikely beginnings.



Photo by lauradahl at Flickr

Editor's note: This story was originally posted in the August 1999 issue, and has been reposted to highlight the long intertwined history of the Nobel Prizes in Scientific American.

In 1996 Japan's Inamori Foundation asked Mario R. Capecchi to review his life and work in an acceptance speech for the prestigious Kyoto Prize. Capecchi dutifully described his pathbreaking research on a precision method for insertion or deletion of genes in mice. The most compelling part of the talk, however, had nothing to do with mouse chimeras or positive-negative selection. Rather Capecchi recounted memories of a childhood with the makings of a script Italian actor/director Roberto Benigni might use as an encore for his Academy Award-winning Life Is Beautiful.

Capecchi is living evidence that scientific creativity and genius can spring from the most improbable circumstances. Little more than 15 years before he began doctoral studies under Nobelist James D. Watson, an eight-year-old Capecchi was using the same intellect to avoid death on the streets of war-ravaged Italy.

Capecchi was born on October 6, 1937, in the northern city of Verona, the offspring of a brief liaison between an Italian airman and an American poet. In 1941 the Gestapo arrested and sent his mother to the Dachau concentration camp. Hitler believed that like Jews, gypsies and homosexuals, the Bohemians, a group of artists who opposed the Nazis and Fascists, should be extirpated from society. In anticipation of being deported, Lucy Ramberg sold her possessions and gave the proceeds to a Tyrolean peasant family to care for the three-and-a-half-year-old Mario.

For a while, things went as well as they could in the middle of a war. On the farm, the boy watched the wheat harvest and would help crush wine grapes with his bare feet. One of his first direct encounters with the war came one afternoon when American airplanes strafed peasants in the field with machine-gun fire. Capecchi took a bullet in the leg, although the wound healed quickly.

After a year, his mother's money unexpectedly ran out, and the boy was put out on the street--Capecchi suspects that his father, an Italian fighter pilot, may have wrangled the remainder of the cash from his caretakers. Thus began a life-defining odyssey for the young boy, the effects of which persist to this day. The man who greets a visitor in his University of Utah office looking out onto the distant Oquirrh Mountains is five feet, four inches tall, perhaps eight inches or so shorter than he would be had he had enough to eat during those formative years.

From 1942 to 1946, Capecchi was in and out of orphanages, a hospital and the Balilla, Mussolini's youth army. These places, usually bereft of food and run by Dickensian masters, proved worse than simply fending for oneself on the street. So he spent most of his time plotting escapes. On the outside, he would live in bombed-out buildings and conspire with companions to steal bread and fruit from open-air shops. It was the best existence possible, despite having to protect himself with his fists and to witness frequent atrocities or their aftermaths, such as discovering a pile of body parts. At times he would live with his father, Luciano Capecchi, who would put up with him for a while and then throw him out. "He was a very loose soul," as Capecchi remembers.

On his ninth birthday, a woman he did not recognize showed up at the hospital where he was confined in the northern Italian city of Reggio Emelia. He had been relegated there because he suffered from malnutrition, yet the hospital itself served only a bowl of chicory coffee and a crust of bread once a day. The woman looked much older than his vague memory of his mother, but Capecchi didn't care whether she was his mother or not. He only knew that she represented a ticket to freedom. Life in the hospital was marked by endless days of lying naked on a bed staring at the ceiling, wracked by famine-induced fevers. Three weeks later--a period that gave him the assurance that his orphanhood had ended--mother and son left on a boat for America

In the course of just a few weeks, Capecchi went from a collapsed civilization to the highly moralistic environment of a Quaker commune, where he and his mother settled with his uncle and aunt, 20 miles north of Philadelphia. In contrast to the murderous rivalries that had fractured Europe, the commune harbored an ethnic melange that included Chinese, blacks and Jews.

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