Think losing your keys is a big deal? Mario Capecchi has misplaced his Nobel Prize for medicine.
“Let’s see if I can find it,” he mumbles, opening dresser drawers. “I sometimes hide it around the house when kids are coming over who want to see it.”
(I feel like a kid. My work is play. What other job would put you in a Nobel laureate’s bedroom, searching for gold?)
“Oh, there it is!” Capecchi shouts, flipping back some pants and uncovering the prize.
His wife, Laurie, rolls her eyes. I think she’s thinking: “Safety deposit box.”
Capecchi pulls out a small red case and pries it open. A solid gold medallion catches the morning light gleaming through his bedroom window. It is heavy with the weight of history.
"You keep it under your pants?" I ask, shaking my head.
Capecchi just laughs. Fame is not the most important thing on his mind. His wife has some bigger news.
“He got the Nobel Prize and then two years later, I was diagnosed with cancer.”
Ironically, Capecchi won his Nobel for giving scientists a blueprint to control the spread of that dreaded disease. Now his quest for a cure has become personal. “If you’re put into a situation where you have to make do,” he says, “that's probably not a bad lesson in life.”
Homeless at age 4
It’s a lesson Capecchi learned early. He was the son of a single mom, a poet, who thought she could defeat the Nazis with her pen. During World War II, Lucy Ramberg was snatched from their home in the Italian Alps and sent to a concentration camp.
“My mother had anticipated her arrest by German authorities,” Capecchi explains. “Prior to their arrival she had sold all her possessions, and gave that money to a farming family to look after me. For a year I was on that farm, and then the money ran out. It’s not clear how it ran out. They could not afford me, and so I was put in the streets.”
“How would a 4-year-old survive on the streets during a war?” I ask.
“Shelter was no problem; there were lots of bombed-out houses. But what you are really concerned about is just food.”
Young Mario targeted his quarry with the eye of a hunter. “You have to see who’s guarding the food, and then you appraise it, and then see what their patterns are before you steal it. That develops a lot of patience.”
“So your first scientific experiment was survival?”
“It does teach you a lot about life,” he replies with a grin.
Thus Capecchi learned to solve problems with methodical determination and enormous concentration, two qualities essential to a scientist — a scientist so brilliant he would one day have a street named after him near where he works, the Health Sciences Center at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.
“How did Oliver Twist become Albert Einstein?” I wonder.
Capecchi laughs. “Well, I wish!”
Young Mario wound up wandering from village to village. By war’s end, the little boy was sick and starving, lying naked on a hospital bed with no sheets or blankets. “Scores of beds lined the rooms and corridors of that hospital in Reggio Emilia, one bed touching the next,” he recalls. “The nurse, Sister Maria, 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.”
Coming to America
On his ninth birthday, Mario had a visitor: his mother. She had searched nearly a year for her lost son. Her ordeal in the concentration camp had left her much changed: “Frankly, I didn’t recognize her. She had aged enormously,” Capecchi recalls. But like her son, she had survived.
Lucy bought him new clothes. “Had my first bath in six years!” Capecchi laughs. They bought tickets to America. Two weeks later, they glided past the Statue of Liberty.
Capecchi’s eyes mist with memory. “I’m sure if I had stayed in Italy, I’d be in jail somewhere, or else I'd be dead.”
Young Mario and his mom ended up in a Quaker commune near Philadelphia. He was 9 years old, couldn’t speak English, and had never been to school. An ordeal like that could scar a child for life, but one of his teachers gave him paint and a way to communicate — though a mural.
That teacher was the first of many people who found a way to help young Mario dream. “Giving a child an opportunity to have dreams, and then to be able to go after those dreams....” Capecchi looks away, lost in thought. “That’s what the United States gave to me.”
Capecchi would pay back America’s kindness. As a graduate student he worked with James D. Watson, one of the two scientists who discovered the structure of DNA. Now Watson believes Capecchi’s breakthrough studies may lead to the conquest of cancer in the next decade. If that happens, Watson says, “Mario’s work will be one of the key points which enabled us to do it.”
His work may already have helped save Laurie’s life. “I’ve just had some blood tests, and the results are good,” she says.
Capecchi smiles. “She was fortunate. Ovarian cancer is very tough to handle, because often you catch it in women very late. And at that point, it’s very difficult.”
Most might expect someone with a background as difficult as Mario Capecchi’s to fail in life. But as a child he learned the lessons he needed not just to survive, but thrive. “I think that he has succeeded because of it,” Laurie says.
Like many immigrants, he thought America’s streets would be paved with gold. “And what I saw,” Mario says, “was actually much more than that — opportunity.”
An opportunity — despite his ordeal — to save a lot of lives.
To contact the subject of this American Story with Bob Dotson, write to:
Dr. Mario Capecchi
c/o Chris Nelson
Health Sciences Public Affairs
University of Utah
420 Chipeta Way, Suite 1900
Main number: (801) 581-7387
And keep those ideas coming. Know someone who would make a great American Story with Bob Dotson? Drop a note in my mailbox by clicking here.