by Carolyn White
A few months ago a journalist from Newsweek Magazine interviewed me for a story about only-child stereotypes. She wanted to know if it’s true that only children have trouble standing on their own two feet and making it in the real world. As I was talking with the reporter, the story of Mario Capecchi ran through my mind. In case you missed it or need a refresher, here is the extraordinary story of an only child who survived horrible circumstances to grow up to win a Nobel Prize for medicine (genetics research) in 2007. When I heard the story, I got tears in my eyes. And then I wondered, “How did he do it?”
Mario was born into a quirky family. His grandmother, an American named Lucy Dodd, wasn’t bound by the rules for women of that period because she left the safe routines of her home in Portland, Oregon and traveled to Italy to study art. While there, she met and fell in love with archaeologist Walter Ramberg. They had three children, but the First World War devastated the family when Walter was killed in battle by friendly fire. One of their children, Lucy Ramberg, gave birth to Walter in Verona, Italy in 1937. Also rather eccentric, she had a passionate love affair with an Italian pilot named Luciano Capecchi, but they never married. They lived happily for four years in the Italian Alps until the Fascists took over. Lucy was a poet who joined an artists’ anti-fascist group called The Bohemians and was fully aware that she could be sent to a concentration camp. But, instead of leaving the group, she made arrangements for Mario to be cared for by a neighbor in case she was arrested and sent away.
The worst came to pass when the Gestapo arrested Lucy Ramberg in 1941. After a year at the neighbor’s farm something happened (no one knows for sure), but Mario became an abandoned child who had to survive on his own… at age five. This is every parent’s worst nightmare. We think that we live in the most perilous times of all, and try to protect our children from danger in the schoolyard, the grocery store, or the shopping mall. Compared to what Mario and his family experienced, our kids live in a plastic bubble. Yet Mario managed to survive, and joined bands of street urchins. There were weeks when he lived in orphanages, and all that time his little belly ached for food. Finally, Mario landed in a hospital where there was a ward for abandoned children, but there was so little to eat that he almost died. In 1945 the Allies liberated Dachau. By some miracle, Mario’s mother survived. She spent a year searching for him and they were finally reunited on his ninth birthday.
Lucy had a brother who had emigrated to the States and lived on a Quaker commune near Philadelphia. Once Lucy and Mario were reunited, they joined Mario’s uncle in the States. Lucy was never mentally stable after her concentration camp experience, but Mario didn’t miss a step and adapted immediately. He made friends with the other children, started school and learned English quickly. Mario was an eager student who excelled in all subjects. He went on to Antioch College and did graduate work at MIT in physics and math. When Harvard beckoned, Mario left MIT to pursue research in gene targeting.
Nothing ever discouraged Mario. In 1980 the National Institute of Health told him that his work was not worth pursuing, but he continued anyway. Capecchi’s road to the Nobel Prize was a tough one. He fought to keep his work alive as hard as he fought for his personal survival. Capecchi’s important research will ultimately allow scientists to control cell mutation and genetic changes in human cells. This has long-range consequences for our ability to understand and control disease.
When asked if his harrowing childhood contributed in some way to his success, Capecchi responded, “It is not clear whether those early childhood experiences contributed to whatever successes I have enjoyed or whether those achievements were attained in spite of those experiences.” This only child has proved to be self-reliant, creative, and confident at every stage of his life. He never made excuses or gave up. His story is not only inspiring but proves that only children have a capacity for endurance and an ability to function in the world that belies the stereotypes and shows that they may have been underestimated for far too long.