PAGE 5 OF 6
The TV correspondent asks if he has pictures from his own childhood. “Well, there aren't any from Italy,” he explains. The reporter should have known this; Capecchi's triumph against a horrific childhood is one reason he's here.
Capecchi, the result of his mother's affair with an Italian Air Force officer, was a child during World War II. One of his first memories dates from age three and a half, when his mother, a vocal opponent of the fascist government, was arrested at their home. Having seen the arrest coming, she had prearranged for a local peasant family to take him in, leaving them with money for his care. When the money ran out a year later, the boy was left to fend for himself. His father took him in a couple of times, but never for long, a few weeks at most. So at age four and a half he learned how to live on the streets—stealing food, fighting, occasionally ending up in orphanages plotting his escape, and, most of the time, hungry.
His mother was imprisoned in Germany for the duration of the war. On Capecchi's ninth birthday, she found him at a hospital in the town of Reggio Emilia, stripped of his clothes so that he couldn't escape. He had been admitted for typhoid and malnutrition, a condition that was failing to improve on the hospital's daily rations of chicory coffee and a piece of bread.
His uncle, who lived in Pennsylvania, sent boat tickets, and within a couple of weeks the mother and son left for America. That's Capecchi's memory of events. But one of the side effects of his Nobel win is that a pair of AP reporters went to Italy to document the details of his story—something that Capecchi, who says he “closed the door” on that part of his life when he arrived in the United States, had never done. He didn't tell anyone about his wartime experiences—not even, until about 12 years ago, his wife, Laurie.
The AP team uncovered documents in Italy and Germany that fit with many of Capecchi's memories and raised questions about others. For example, no records have been found of his mother's internment in Dachau, where his uncle thought she had been held. (She did not want to talk about her wartime experience.) Capecchi says he would eventually like to do more research on his early life, such as examining records from other concentration camps, and appreciates the records that reporters have turned up. “For a scientist, contradictions are often a point of interest,” he says.
The reason Capecchi decided to finally discuss his childhood remains unchanged. When he received the Kyoto Prize in 1996 and was asked to provide an autobiographical statement, he says he hoped that by opening his “Pandora's box,” he could communicate that early deprivation doesn't necessarily affect an individual's potential. Any child, given the chance, can amount to something.
Capecchi is thoughtful, mild-mannered, and gracious, focusing completely on whomever he is with. He laughs easily and seems comfortable in his own skin. He is circumspect about his family, however. When he talks about his daughter, now in college in California, it's only to say that he hopes she'll be able to find work she loves and is passionate about, regardless of whether it's in science, art, or something else. Capecchi has certainly found work that he loves, and he confronts it with ambition, as well as patience. His publication record, while truly impressive, has noticeable slowdowns. Those gaps don't reflect slowdowns in his work, he observes, but rather a willingness to wait until he has something substantial to say.
Capecchi has had plenty to say about the many knockout mice his lab has contributed. He and his team have pushed the technology to create mice with multiple genes knocked out and also what he calls conditional knockouts—mice in which he can turn a gene off, at will, in a specific tissue or phase of development.