Today, a tale of breast cancer and Argentinean
children. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
My grandmother went to
Carleton College. She was a music teacher, a
writer, and the mother of five. She was a real
lady: tough, gentle, and always a radical. That's
why a recent article on Mary-Claire King got my
King also went to Carleton. After she finished in
math, in 1966, she went on to my old school -- to
Berkeley. She was drawn there by the radical
politics in the '60s. But she did her PhD in
genetics. She went in fighting the war in Viet Nam.
She came out armed to fight a much larger enemy.
She went after breast cancer. That's the most
common cancer a woman faces -- if she doesn't
smoke. It could be a genetic problem. Find the
gene, and maybe you can find the cure.
So King turned her math on gene tracking. At first
the task was, in her words, like looking for an
address in a strange town at night, with street
lights every ten blocks. But new work in molecular
biology was putting in more street lights all the
She finally cracked the problem. She found a
dominant gene that puts at least half the breast
cancer victims at risk. Now she's tracking genes
that put the other half at risk.
Soon after Mary-Claire King began her work in
America, a terrible dictatorship took over
Argentina. Soldiers dragged off whole families.
They tortured and murdered all but the youngest
children. The government gave them to childless
officials. They let pregnant prisoners give birth
before they murdered them.
The strongest revolutionaries against that regime
were the now famous, and astonishingly brave,
grandmothers. When the government fell, the
grandmothers came to King. To get the children
back, they had to make kidnapping charges stand up
in court. They asked for a genetic test to identify
By now, King could provide it. She developed a
mitochondrial DNA test. Her first case was a girl
kidnapped when she was two. She won the case. Since
then, her tests have identified 48 more children.
It was deeply affecting work, but her part is done.
She's back to the larger fight -- the one against
And my mind goes back to those strong-minded
grandmothers. On a hunch, I lay my own
grandmother's picture next to King's. I am
astonished. They're so alike -- the same nose, the
same sure jaw. But most alike are their penetrating
eyes -- cool, clear eyes that look to the middle of
Maybe that's it! Perhaps they share the vision of
creative people everywhere -- people who do not
accept the world as it is. These are eyes that see
through -- to the way things ought to be.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
My material on Mary-Claire King is taken from
Noonan, D., Genes at War. Discover,
Special 10th Anniversary Issue, October 1990, pp.
King's revolutionary credentials reach much further
than I can tell in three minutes. While she was
still a student, she marched and picketed against
the Viet Nam War. She worked with Nader on the
effect of plant pesticides on humnas. And she
worked in Chile where she watched students being
murdered during the coup against Allende. Her
involvement with the grandmothers was a hard
emotional experience for her.
Carleton College is a highly regarded liberal arts
school in Northfield, Minnesota. Before my
grandmother studied music education there, she
witnessed the Jesse James bank robbery along with
her father, Charles Augustus Wheaton. He was the
newspaper editor and a judge. His revolutionary
credentials were pretty good, too. He worked the
Northern end of the underground railway before the
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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