When I started my PhD program in Evolutionary Biology, I read all of Margie Profet’s articles. Basically, she looked at some of the things that make being female unpleasant (menstruating, morning sickness, etc.) and asked if they might have some adaptive function. She hypothesized that menstruating could be a female’s way of shedding sperm-borne pathogens and that morning sickness could be a warning system to keep pregnant women away from foods that might be dangerous to the babies they are carrying. If you have spent any time in evolutionary biology, you know that proposing adaptive features for medical issues/non-ideal biological states is like holding a lightning rod up in a storm. Other scientists will start quoting the Spandrels of San Marcos, and everyone will get excited about poking holes in your theories. Especially if they get a ton of media attention, as Profet’s ideas did, and you give dramatic advice that flouts convention (like telling women to avoid vegetables in early pregnancy). Picking apart hypotheses is just the nature of who we are and what we do. And often times, Panglossian theories about adaptive silver linings do turn out to be wrong. So it’s no surprise that Profet’s hypotheses were controversial or that fellow researchers began to refute some of her arguments with their own data.
Following these articles and the spirited responses they evoked was fun. It wasn’t until years later that I found out Profet was pretty fascinating in her own right. I hadn’t heard anything about her for a while, and I wondered what she was up to and started googling. First, I found out she was awarded a MacArthur genius grant for her work in evolutionary biology. That’s a pretty big achievement in and of itself. What’s even more amazing, though, is she published all these articles and won this award without an advanced degree in Biology. Instead, these ideas started incubating when she was working in Bruce Ame’s lab. I remember reading that post-MacArthur award, she had moved to the University of Washington and was studying math (after becoming frustrated with the reception she got in Evolutionary Biology was my guess). And after that it was like she fell off the map. I couldn’t find out anything about her current work.
Well it turns out she really did disappear. This summer I remembered the Margie Profet mystery and tried googling her again. And I came across an article by Mike Martin in Psychology Today: The Mysterious Case of the Vanishing Genius. She had last been seen taking math courses at Harvard. The last electronic traces of Profet stopped in 2002, when she cut ties with her family. The last sightings of her were in 2004–2005. After that, radio silence. It was a disheartening article–the quotes from her friends and family were very sad. But maybe getting the story out into the world was important, because in May of 2012, Martin published an update on his website. After learning that her loved ones were seeking her, Profet reached out to her family and they reunited. It sounds like those missing years were very difficult ones for everyone involved.
I haven’t really kept up on the status of her major hypotheses, but Martin says that her ideas about allergies as a defense against cancer have gotten support from some recent studies by other investigators. I hope that now she is back, she’s gratified to hear about these new findings. More than that, of course, I hope she finds love, support, and comfort among the people who love her. Maybe all of her work in science seems like another lifetime. Welcome back, Margie Profet. You were missed.