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Former Beggar Wins Nobel Prize in Medicine

Posted October. 11, 2007 03:47,   


The U.S. has taken two-thirds of all the Nobel Prizes in medicine. Since 1990, it has produced 12 Nobel laureates in medicine. People in the U.S. have become more interested in what achievements the winners have made than their nationalities. However, this year’s prize is somewhat different.

The news on Monday that University of Utah scientist Mario R. Capecchi (70) won the 2007 Nobel Prize in medicine with two other scientists threw the U.S. society into a state of excitement.

That is because the troubles he suffered in his lifetime reflect the grim history of the 20th century. The American media has frequently feathered his success story as an example of the realization of the spirit of “can do.”

Capecchi, an internationally renowned authority on the study of hereditary diseases that is one of the keys to 21st century science, was born in 1937 in Verona, Italy. His mother was the daughter of an American artist who had came to Europe in the early 20th century. While fighting against fascism along with Bohemian artists, his mother met an Italian air force officer and gave birth to Capecchi.

However, they didn’t get married and the Second World War broke out. His father died in the battlefield, and her mother was taken to a concentration camp for political prisoners.

Her mother then sold all her assets and raised money for her son’s welfare. She gave the money to her friend who farmed in a rural area and asked him to take care of her four-year-old son. However, before long, her friend kicked him out on the excuse that he had no money to support him.

After that, for four and a half years, Capecchi had to wonder the streets. He slept on the street and fed himself by rummaging in trash bins. He had often been on the verge of starving to death.

Then he ended up being locked up in a facility for undernourished, vagrant children. Though he was deprived of freedom and had to live naked for the whole year, at least he could starve off hunger with a small piece of bread and a cup of coffee.

After the defeat of Nazism, his mother, who was freed from a concentration camp, looked for him for a year and finally found him on his ninth birthday. Shortly, the two crossed the Atlantic Ocean and went to the state of Pennsylvania in the U.S. looking for an uncle.

Their life in the U.S. was totally different from his previous life. He was admitted into a Quaker school with the help of his uncle, who led a community of Quakers. Though he couldn’t speak English at all, he fell in love with learning thanks to a considerate teacher. The teacher allowed him to draw pictures and shape clay whenever he wanted to.

His struggle for survival when he was young helped him carry out his research with extraordinary tenacity and patience.

With the aid of his mentor, Nobel laureate James D. Watson, who determined the structure of DNA, he earned his doctorate from Harvard in 1967. In 1980, he applied for a grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for his research on “gene targeting,” an unfamiliar technology at the time that distorts specific genes by injecting DNA into nuclei. But the NIH turned him down and said his study was “useless.”

But he never surrendered and continued his research. Four years later, the NIH sent him a letter of apology saying that they were grateful to him for not paying heed to their advice,” and started awarding him grants. Now, gene targeting technology is considered a breakthrough that marked an epoch in the history of medicine.

Professor Capecchi is frequently questioned about influences his childhood experiences have on his success. His answer to the question is always the same: “Humans cannot be artificially controlled and manipulated.”