Mario R. Capecchi's earliest memories are of his mother being arrested by the Nazis.
In 1941, Capecchi, then a young boy living in the Italian Alps, saw the Gestapo haul away his mother, a poet who had allied herself with anti-Fascist intellectuals. The arrest was the start of a remarkable journey for Capecchi, one that included being a homeless street urchin, suffering from malnutrition in an Italian hospital, immigrating to the United States -- and yesterday, winning the Nobel Prize in medicine.
Capecchi, 70, a renowned geneticist at the University of Utah at Salt Lake City, shares the prestigious $1.54 million prize with fellow American Oliver Smithies, 82, a native of England now at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Sir Martin J. Evans, 66, of Cardiff University in Wales. The trio won the award for research on how genes can be manipulated in mice to better understand disease in humans.
But it is Capecchi's story that is particularly striking.
He was only 3 when his mother, Lucy Ramberg, a member of a group of artists known as the Bohemians, was sent to the Dachau concentration camp in Germany as a political prisoner for pamphleteering against Nazism and fascism. Anticipating the arrest, Ramberg, who never married Capecchi's father, an officer in the Italian air force, sold her possessions, giving the money to a peasant family that she asked to care for her son. But the money ran out in a year.
"They didn't have the resources to keep me and maintain their own family," the scientist said in a telephone interview yesterday. "So I went on the streets."
Capecchi moved from town to town, hungry most of the time and occasionally living in orphanages or traveling with gangs of other homeless children who stole food from carts while other members of the group distracted the vendors. "Just surviving from day to day pretty much occupies your mind," he said in a 1997 interview with the Salt Lake Tribune.
He spent years on the streets and nearly died of malnutrition in a hospital near Bologna, where he lay naked and feverish on a bed, existing on a daily bowl of chicory coffee and a small crust of bread. His mother, who was liberated from Dachau by U.S. troops in 1945, found him at the hospital after searching for more than a year. She showed up on his ninth birthday, carrying a Tyrolean outfit for him, complete with a small cap with a feather. She took him to Rome, where he had his first bath in six years.
"I still have the hat," he said in a 1996 lecture in Japan.
In 1946, Capecchi's uncle Edward Ramberg, a physicist living in a commune in Bucks County, Pa., sent money so that his sister and nephew could come live with his family in the United States.
"I was here one day, and the next day I went to my first school," Capecchi said.
The Washington Post