Born in a suburb of Chicago, Mary-Claire King developed an interest in solving mysteries and mathematical puzzles at an early age. At the age of fifteen, she lost her best friend to cancer, a traumatic event she links to her later research goal of advancing understanding of cancer.
After graduating from Carleton College with a degree in mathematics when she was just nineteen, King began pursuing her Ph.D. in genetics at the University of California, Berkeley, in the molecular evolution laboratory of Allan Wilson. King was soon swept up in the political tumult on campus, and left her studies to take up activist work investigating the effects of pesticides on farm workers. Though she was offered a job with consumer advocate Ralph Nader, King hesitated and consulted Wilson, her former professor. Wilson recognized her great potential as a scientist, and encouraged her to return to the laboratory. King and Wilson went on to revolutionize evolutionary biology with their proof that chimpanzees and humans shared roughly 99% of their genetic material, suggesting that humans and chimps had diverged from a common ancestor more recently than had previously been believed.
With her background in genetics and a personal interest in cancer, King then turned her attention to analyzing the pattern of breast cancer in families. Her findings suggested that the disease might be inherited in some cases, and she set herself the ambitious goal of finding the genes responsible for inherited breast cancer. In 1990, King and her colleagues proved the existence of the first gene to be associated with hereditary breast cancer, now known as BRCA1. Certain mutations in the BRCA1 gene are known to greatly increase a carrier’s chances of developing breast cancer.
Mary-Claire King also maintains her youthful interest in combining science and political activism. She has worked to use DNA evidence to help Argentine families find the “lost” and displaced children from the country’s civil war in the mid-1970s.
King is currently the American Cancer Society Research Professor in the Departments of Medicine and Genetics at the University of Washington. She received the Clowes Award for Basic Research from the American Association for Cancer Research, the Brinker Award from the Komen Foundation, and was a Glamour magazine “Woman of the Year.”