Skip to main content

Mary-Claire King

Perhaps more than anyone in her generation, Mary-Claire King has managed to reconcile the objectivity of a highly knowledgeable, well grounded researcher with the ardor of the activist. For her, science is personal.

Born in a Chicago suburb in 1946, she learned the cruelty of cancer when she was still in high school and a childhood friend died of the disease. She attributes her interest in science and particularly her groundbreaking work in cancer research in part to that early loss. Certainly she was a highly motivated student. She earned a bachelor's degree in mathematics cum laude from Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, at the early age of 20. She received her doctorate in genetics from the University of California, Berkeley, and then pursued post doctoral studies at the University of California, San Francisco.

While still at UC she interrupted her studies briefly to work with Ralph Nader's consumer advocacy organization, to study the effects of pesticides on farm workers. Throughout her career, she has been acutely aware of the benefits of scientific discovery to the human condition and she has focused her research energies on projects that will benefit humanity.

She has worked with the United Nations using DNA evidence to identify victims of war crimes in various parts of the world. And she became famous internationally for helping to establish the genetic links of children of "the Disappeared" in Argentina whose parents were killed in civil unrest, thus helping to unite the children with their grandparents.

King has focused years of research on cancer, especially breast cancer. Perhaps her most dramatic contribution, to date, is the demonstration of the link between breast cancer and a single gene, BRCA1. Other researchers have since used her method of analyzing the genetic effects on breast cancer to study other illnesses, including Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease.

While actively engaged in research, she has also forged a reputation as a great teacher. She was a professor of genetics and epidemiology at UC, Berkeley, from 1976 to 1995, and since then has been an American Cancer Society research professor at the University of Washington, Seattle. She is an affiliate member of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Seattle.

She has served on numerous government panels and with private organizations, including the National Cancer Institute's Breast Cancer Task Force, the National Institutes of Health Genome Study Section and the Office of Research on Women's Health Advisory Board, the United Nations War Crimes Tribunal and UN Forensic Anthropology Team and the Robert Wood John Foundation's Minority Medical Faculty Development Program, Scientific Advisory Board. She also has served on the editorial boards or reviewing panels of many publications including Science and Nature magazines.

King has one child, a daughter, Emily