Mario Capecchi: an excerpt from Noble Journeys

The following is an excerpt from Nobel Journeys, a story collection that chronicles the extraordinary lives of Nobel Prize Laureates from the past and present, from all over the world, and from every Nobel Prize category. All 10 stories focus on important moments of discovery in the Laureates’ lives that helped them choose their unique pathways to success. And every tale reinforces the notion that education is an essential ingredient to a bright future.

Nobel Journeys is the first of many joint initiatives from the Nobel Prize Museum and EF Education First, two global organizations dedicated to bringing learning to life for students. Download a free copy of the full book and accompanying lesson plan for your classroom, and show your students that great ideas can come from anyone, at any time.

In 2007, Mario Capecchi was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his groundbreaking work in molecular biology. Capecchi’s gene-targeted “knockout” mice have provided scientists with dozens of different models of human disease, paving the way for research into cures for diabetes, heart disease, and neurological disorders. Few people would ever guess that Mario Capecchi overcame a horrific childhood of homelessness and malnutrition in Northern Italy when his mother was taken to a Nazi concentration camp. In fact, Capecchi never stepped foot inside a school before the age of nine. Yet the ability to survive by his own wits later gave him the resourcefulness to accomplish whatever he set out to achieve. All he needed was the chance of a better life – as well as the support of family, friends, and teachers who really cared.

One of Capecchi’s earliest memories is the spring day in 1941 when, at the age of three, the Nazis came to take his mother away. Mario Capecchi was playing outside the chalet where they lived in the Italian Alps. He didn’t understand what was happening. He begged the soldiers to explain where they were taking his mother – he spoke both German and Italian – but all they said was that he wouldn’t be seeing her again for many years, if ever.

Mario Capecchi image

Mario would only later learn that his mother, Lucy Ramberg, was a Sorbonne-educated poet who had met a group of outspoken anti-Fascist and anti-Nazi bohemians in Paris and had become an activist. On her return to Italy, she was arrested for her political views and imprisoned at a German concentration camp, most likely Dachau. She had anticipated her arrest, however, and had given most of her valuables to a local peasant family in exchange for their promise to look after her son. This they did – but only for one year. At the age of four, Mario was utterly on his own.

He headed south on foot – in the direction of Reggio Emilia, the village where he believed his father might live. (His mother had had a passionate affair with an Italian air force pilot named Luciano Cappechi, but she had refused to marry him, in spite of the scandal it had caused.) En route, Mario sometimes lived on the streets. At other times, like in the town of Bolzano, he joined gangs of homeless children who pickpocketed or begged for change. About the only constant in his life was hunger.

Eventually, Mario Capecchi found his father in Reggio Emilia – or his father brought him there, no one knows for sure – but Mario only ever stayed a few days at a time. His father was extremely abusive. A kind priest took Mario in at an orphanage he ran in Reggio Emilia. Mario later wrote, “He was one of the very few men I encountered who showed compassion for children and took an interest in me.” Still, Mario ran away, off and on, for the remainder of the war.

In the spring of 1945, while the Allies were liberating the death camps of Austria and Bavaria, Mario was being treated at a hospital in Reggio Emilia for typhus and malnutrition. His prospects for survival were grim since all there was for patients to eat each day was a crust of bread soaked in a bowl of chicory coffee. Nonetheless, the nurses were obliged to take away his clothes so that he wouldn’t run away.

On Mario’s ninth birthday, his mother suddenly turned up at the hospital to reclaim him. He barely recognized her, she had aged so much in the camps. She had begun to search for him the very day she was set free. She immediately bought him a set of new clothes: Tyrolean Lederhosen, complete with a felt cap and feather. They boarded a train for Rome, where Mario had his first bath in years. There they processed the necessary paperwork to journey to Naples, then boarded a ship bound for the United States. Mario’s uncle Edward Ramberg, a brilliant young physicist, had invited them to live with him and his wife, Sarah, in Pennsylvania.

Mario expected the streets of America to be paved with gold. As it turned out, he found something in Pennsylvania far more valuable to him – a future.

It wasn’t easy at first. It would take time before Mario would heal from his horrific wartime existence in Italy. He would toss and turn in his sleep with such violence that, by morning, the Rambergs would find the sheets torn and the bed frame broken. Mario had no idea how to behave like a typical nine-year-old child in an American suburb. He had no notion of rules or manners or etiquette. He didn’t speak a word of English, nor could he read or write in any language.
Still, he started school the very day after his arrival.

Luckily, Mario had a marvelous third-grade teacher who was patient and encouraging. The class was studying the Netherlands, and she had Mario paint a large mural on paper of tulips, windmills, ships, and children skating on ice so that he could begin communicating and connecting with his classmates in a non-verbal way.

Bryn Gweled, the intentional Quaker community in Pennsylvania where the Rambergs lived, was the ideal place for Mario to start a new life. People of all races and religions welcomed him without judgment. There were group activities of all kinds for kids – painting, dance, theater, sports – as well as communal chores like gardening and cleaning. His aunt and uncle were particularly positive forces in his life. As Quakers, they believed in teaching by example. They were patient and kind and gave Mario the space he needed to discover who he was. Edward was a renowned physicist, for example, but did not insist that Mario follow in his footsteps. How Mario chose to make his mark on the world would be entirely up to him.

Mario was a good, but not serious, student – until he discovered sports in high school. He craved physical activity and motion. And it was by playing on the varsity football, soccer, baseball, and wrestling teams that he developed his senses of discipline, drive, focus, collaboration, and competition. He soon found himself channeling those attributes into his studies.

When it came time to apply for college, Mario decided to study political science. He was determined to make the world a better and more equitable place – partly because of his childhood in Italy, partly because of his Quaker upbringing in Pennsylvania. But at Antioch College, Mario soon grew frustrated with political science. There appeared to be very little science to the discipline at all. He found himself drawn instead to the simplicity of mathematics and physics. He grew more and more attracted to scientific subjects – like quantum physics – that were more about the future of science than about its past.

And so he began to follow in his Uncle Edward’s footsteps after all.

Fortunately, Antioch had an outstanding work-study program, one that allowed Mario to spend a summer in Boston at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. There he was introduced to biophysics as the field was being born. Everything was new about molecular biology, and there were no limitations. Plus its discoveries could have a direct, positive impact on the world.

Mario Capecchi wanted to be part of this new field.

So after Antioch, Mario interviewed with Professor James Watson at Harvard University, to ask him where he should do his graduate studies. Watson’s reply was curt and to the point: “Here. You would be crazy to go anywhere else.” After all, Mario had been through in his life, Mario found the simplicity of Dr. Watson’s direct answer very persuasive.

Thanks to Dr. Watson’s mentorship, Mario Capecchi went on to have a successful career in molecular biology. Over time, he would not regret his first education – on the streets of Italy. Though he would never wish his early childhood on anyone, he learned a set of survival skills he still uses daily in the lab: flexibility, resourcefulness, the ability to think fast on his feet, the courage to fail, and, above all, the will to keep trying.

Download a free copy of the full book and accompanying lesson plan for your classroom.

Editor’s note (2021): This piece has been updated for clarity, accuracy, and relevance.

Topics: Nobel

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