Mary-Claire King

Mary-Claire King (born February 27, 1946)[1] is the American Cancer Society Professor of Genome Sciences and of Medical Genetics in the Department of Medicine at the University of Washington.[2] She studies human genetics and is particularly interested in genetic heterogeneity and complex traits.[3] She studies the interaction of genetics and environmental influences and their effects on human conditions such as breast and ovarian cancer, inherited deafness, schizophrenia, HIV, and lupus.

Mary-Claire King
Born (1946-02-27) February 27, 1946 (age 72)
ResidenceUnited States
Alma materCarleton College
University of California, Berkeley
University of California, San Francisco
Known forGenetics, Human rights
AwardsHeineken Prize
Gruber Prize in Genetics (2004)
Weizmann Award (2006)
Pearl Meister Greengard Prize (2010)
Lasker Award (2014)
National Medal of Science (2014,awarded 2016)
Shaw Prize in Medicine (2018)
Scientific career
FieldsBiologist, Biomedical
InstitutionsUniversity of Washington, University of California, Berkeley
ThesisProtein polymorphisms in chimpanzee and human evolution (1973)
Doctoral advisorAllan Wilson

King is known for three major accomplishments: demonstrating that humans and chimpanzees are 99% genetically identical; identifying breast cancer genes; and applying genomic sequencing to identify victims of human rights abuses. In 1984, in Argentina, she began working with Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo (Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo) in identifying children who had been stolen from their families and adopted illegally under the military dictatorship during the Dirty War (1976-1983).[1]


Early lifeEdit

Mary-Claire King was born on February 27, 1946, to Harvey and Clarice King of Wilmette, Illinois, near Chicago. Her father worked for Standard Oil of Indiana.[1] When King was 15 years old, her childhood best friend died of cancer. King became interested in science in the hope of learning enough to prevent and treat such illnesses.[4]

King's mother Clarice was descended from a Pilgrim, Widow Mary Ring, one of the original Leiden Separatist church members of the Plymouth Colony. Her family were practicing Methodists. They were proud of their Pilgrim history.[5]

Genetically, Clarice also had Jewish ancestry, through her father Louis Cohen. During the Tulsa race riot, her family offered shelter to African-Americans who had been burned out of their homes. The Cohen family was targeted by the Ku Klux Klan as a result. Later, Clarice was rejected by Ivy League schools that assumed she was Jewish. Deeply afraid of persecution, Clarice changed the family's name from Cohen (her father's last name) to Gates (her mother's maiden name). She kept her family's Jewish ancestry a deep secret. Mary-Claire King was a university student when she accidentally discovered her Jewish ancestry.[5]


King received her undergraduate degree in mathematics (cum laude) from Carleton College in 1967.[6]

King was accepted into the graduate program at the University of California, Berkeley, and soon became politically active. She helped to organize protests against U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War in 1970, and dropped out of university briefly after the National Guard was sent in against student protestors. She spent a year doing consumer advocacy work for Ralph Nader, investigating pesticide use and its effects on farm workers.[7][8]

After her return to Berkeley, advisor Allan Wilson persuaded her to switch from mathematics to genetics.[9] King had been introduced to genetics by professor Curt Stern, in the last class he taught before his retirement.[10] In her doctoral work at Berkeley, King demonstrated through comparative protein analysis that chimpanzees and humans were 99% genetically identical. King's work supported Allan Wilson's view that chimpanzees and humans diverged only five million years ago, and King and Wilson suggested that gene regulation was likely responsible for the significant differences between the species.[11][12][13] King completed her thesis in 1972, and received her doctorate in genetics from the University of California, Berkeley in 1973.[6][13]

Next King went to Santiago, Chile to teach at the Universidad de Chile as part of a University of California-University of Chile exchange program. Her time there was cut short when the Chilean government of Salvador Allende was overthrown in a military coup on September 11, 1973. King, her husband and her daughter returned to Berkeley.[9][14] She later learned that a number of her colleagues and students had either disappeared or been killed.[15]

King accepted a postdoctoral position at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), to work with Nicholas L. Petrakis. As of January 1, 1974, King began to work on the problem of why breast cancer tends to appear in families.[14][9]


King's younger brother Paul King, a mathematician and business consultant, was the CEO of Vanalco in Vancouver, Washington.[16]

King is divorced and has one child named Emily.[5] Emily has studied the evolution of languages at Brown University with a B.A. in mathematics and received her Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley in 1972/1973.


King accepted a faculty appointment at the University of California, Berkeley, as professor of genetics and epidemiology in 1976. She remained at UC Berkeley until 1995, when she accepted an appointment as the American Cancer Society Professor at the University of Washington.[2]


From 1974 to 1990, King carried out years of painstaking research, seeking a genetic marker, an identifiable gene that tended to accompany the presence of breast cancer in families.[17] For much of that time, scientists disregarded or attacked her ideas. The idea that genetic patterns could be linked to the incidence of complex diseases was considered an unlikely long shot.[5] Genetics had been recognized as significant in diseases with a simple genetic tie, such as Huntington's disease, cystic fibrosis, and sickle-cell anemia, but researchers were skeptical about the usefulness of genetics in studying more common and complex diseases involving both multiple genetic factors and environmental influences. King sometimes worried that she was going down a blind alley in trying to study the interplay of genetics with a complex human disease.[5]

By 1990, King and her team had examined and rejected 172 possible markers using a technique called family linkage analysis. Then one of the team members suggested that they reorganize their data by age of onset, focusing on families in which members had developed cancer at a relatively young age. The idea was that early cases might be more likely to reflect a genetic component, in contrast to sporadic mutations that might occur at any age, or even accrue over time. King's group were able to demonstrate that a single gene on chromosome 17 could be linked to many breast and ovarian cancers. As many as 5-10% of all cases of breast cancer may be hereditary.[18][17][19] In 1991 King officially named the gene BRCA1.[20] Her discovery paved the way for identification of the gene sequence. In September 1994, Myriad Genetics published a paper on the positional cloning of the seqence after a highly publicized "race" by groups of scientists.[21][22][20] In December 1994, King and her collaborators published results based on a second cohort of families.[22][23] A second gene, BRCA2, was also found.[21] These two genes, BRCA 1 and BRCA 2 work together to clean up cells in the body that have been harmed by things such as tobacco or just help clean the cells because they have aged. When these genes do not perform these functions, it causes cells to grow and divide quickly, leading to some types of cancers. [24] Both genes worked to suppress the development of cancer tumors, but certain types of genetic mutations could prevent them from doing so.[18]

In 1996, with support from the Breast Cancer Research Foundation (BCRF) Mary-Claire King and social worker Joan Marks began the New York Breast Cancer Study, which definitively determined that incidence of breast and ovarian cancer was linked to inherited mutations of the genes BRCA1 and BRCA2. The researchers studied women of Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry in New York, a group that was known to have a very high incidence of breast cancer (up to an 80% risk by age 70 compared to 12% in the general population).[25][26]

The discovery of the "breast cancer gene" revolutionized the study of numerous other common diseases. The technique King developed to identify BRCA1 has since proven valuable in the study of many other illnesses and conditions.[14] King's contributions have made it possible for people to be informed of genetic information that then can aid them in making choices best for themselves and for their future.[27][5]

Since 1990, King has been working in collaboration with scientists around the world to identify genetic causes of hearing loss and deafness. They successfully cloned the first non-syndromic deafness-related gene in 1999. King continues to work with scientists Karen Avraham in Israel and Moien Kanaan in the West Bank, modeling international scientific cooperation in conjunction with conducting scientific research. Hereditary deafness is common amongst some endogamous Arab communities, providing good study populations to understand the genetics of this condition.

King in recent years has developed a deep interest in studying the genetic factors influencing schizophrenia. In collaboration with scientists across the continents, her group has been working to identify genetic factors related to schizophrenia.

King has also worked on the Human Genome Diversity Project, which seeks to delineate the distinctions among individuals in order to further understanding of human evolution and historical migrations.

At the request of Dr. William Maples, King participated in DNA investigations of the first analysis of Romanov remains exhumed in 1991 in Ekaterinburg, Russia.

She is a current member of the Scientific Council of the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation.

Human rights workEdit

King first applied her genetics skills to human rights work in 1984, when she and her lab began working with Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo (Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo) in Argentina. She used dental genetics to identify missing persons, ultimately identifying 59 children and helping return them to their biological families. Most had been born to women in prison who had been persecuted as political dissidents and were later "disappeared" by the Argentine military dictatorship during the eight-year "Dirty War" from 1976-1983. These children were often illegally "adopted" by military families without their mother's or other family consent.

Beginning in 1977 Las Abuelas ("the grandmothers") had gathered to protest the disappearance of their grandchildren and seek their return. Every Thursday, they marched to the central plaza in Buenos Aires ("Plaza de Mayo") to demand the return of their grandchildren, and they began gathering data trying to identify the many missing children (estimated to be 400-500).

By the time King joined the project, the dictatorship had been replaced by a democratic government, but it required proof of kinship to remove children from families and return them to biological families. King's technique, using mitochondrial DNA and human leukocyte antigen serotyping genetic markers from dental samples, proved invaluable. The Supreme Court of Argentina in 1984 determined that King's test had positively identified the relationship of Paula Logares to her family, establishing the precedent for the ultimate reunification of dozens of families with their stolen children.[28]

Since 1984, this technique has become a major method for genetic identification of the deceased as well as the living. In 1993 King used the technique to identify the remains of individuals massacred in the village of El Mozote, El Salvador. More than 750 adults and children were massacred and buried in mass graves by US-trained Salvadoran soldiers[29] of the Atlacatl Battalion.[30]

King has worked with numerous human rights organizations, such as Physicians for Human Rights and Amnesty International, to identify missing people in countries including Argentina, Chile, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Mexico, Rwanda, the Balkans (Croatia and Serbia), and the Philippines. King's lab has also provided DNA identification for the U.S. Army, the United Nations, and the U.N.'s war crimes tribunals.

While she has become renowned in humanitarian circles for her genetics identification work, King has been politically engaged her entire life. She protested the Vietnam War during her college years. She says: "The single most effective thing we did was on the day after the US invaded Cambodia, we got out our suit jackets and shirtwaist dresses – not clothes that any of us had worn since coming to Berkeley – and went to the synagogues and churches and by the end of Sunday we had 30,000 letters opposing the action."[31] While doing graduate work, King later worked with Ralph Nader studying the effects of pesticides on farm workers. In the early 1970s, she was teaching science in Santiago, Chile, when Chilean President Salvador Allende was assassinated on Sept. 11, 1973, in a CIA-backed coup. She has been supportive of women and ethnic and sexual minorities in science,[32] and critical of genetic patenting.[33]

Awards, prizes, and honorsEdit

Dr. King has won numerous awards, prizes, and honors for her scientific and humanitarian work, including:.[34]

Honorary degreesEdit

  • 2018, Doctor of Science, University of British Columbia[53]
  • 2016, Doctor of Science honoris causa, The University of Hong Kong[54]
  • 2007, Yale University[55]
  • 2006, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven[15]
  • 2003, Honorary Doctor of Science, Harvard University;[56]
  • 1992, Carleton College[57]
  • Columbia, Princeton, Brown, Smith, Bard, Dartmouth, and Tel Aviv Universities

Notable professional serviceEdit

  • Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's Minority Medical Faculty Development Program, Scientific Advisory Board
  • United Nations War Crimes Tribunal
  • UN Forensic Anthropology Team
  • National Cancer Institute's Breast Cancer Task Force
  • National Institutes of Health Genome Study Section
  • Office of Research on Women's Health Advisory Board

King has five patents and over 250 peer-reviewed journal articles.


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  4. ^ Dreifus, Claudia (February 9, 2015). "A Never-Ending Genetic Quest Mary-Claire King's Pioneering Gene Work, From Breast Cancer to Human Rights". The New York Times. Retrieved 29 November 2016.
  5. ^ a b c d e f Entine, Jon (2007). Abraham's children : race, identity, and the DNA of the chosen people (1st ed.). New York: Grand Central Pub. pp. 270–289. ISBN 978-0446580632. Retrieved 13 February 2019.
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  9. ^ a b c Elliott, Ellen. "Women in Science: Mary-Claire King". The Jackson Laboratory. Retrieved 12 February 2019.
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  11. ^ King, M.; Wilson, A. (1975). "Evolution at two levels in humans and chimpanzees". Science. 188 (4184): 107–116. doi:10.1126/science.1090005. PMID 1090005.
  12. ^ Gilad, Y.; Oshlack, A.; Smyth, G. K.; Speed, T. P.; White, K. P. (2006). "Expression profiling in primates reveals a rapid evolution of human transcription factors". Nature. 440 (7081): 242–245. doi:10.1038/nature04559. PMID 16525476.
  13. ^ a b Mary-Claire King, Protein polymorphisms in chimpanzee and human evolution, Doctoral dissertation, University of California, Berkeley (1973).
  14. ^ a b c "Q&A With Dr. Mary-Claire King". Breast Cancer Research Foundation (BCRF). July 7, 2014. Retrieved 12 February 2019.
  15. ^ a b "KATHOLIEKE UNIVERSITEIT LEUVEN Laudatio for Professor Mary-Claire King Pronounced in Leuven on 2 February 2006 by Professor Dr. Gert Matthijs, promoter" (PDF). Katholieke Universiteit. Retrieved 29 November 2016.
  16. ^ McHale, Laurie (1996). "Putting the Puzzle Together". Columns: The University of Washington Alumni Magazine. Retrieved 29 November 2016.
  17. ^ a b "Mary-Claire King Genetic Breast Cancer Detection". Lemelson-MIT Program. Retrieved 14 February 2019.
  18. ^ a b Batt, Sharon (2003). Patient no more : the politics of breast cancer. Gynergy. pp. 170–176. ISBN 978-0921881308. Retrieved 14 February 2019.
  19. ^ Hall, J.; Lee, M.; Newman, B.; Morrow, J.; Anderson, L.; Huey, B.; King, M. (1990). "Linkage of early-onset familial breast cancer to chromosome 17q21". Science. 250 (4988): 1684–1689. doi:10.1126/science.2270482. PMID 2270482.
  20. ^ a b Miki, Y; Swensen, J; Shattuck-Eidens, D; Futreal, P.; Harshman, K; Tavtigian, S; Liu, Q; Cochran, C; Bennett, L.; Ding, W; et, al. (7 October 1994). "A strong candidate for the breast and ovarian cancer susceptibility gene BRCA1". Science. 266 (5182): 66–71. doi:10.1126/science.7545954.
  21. ^ a b Gold, E Richard; Carbone, Julia (April 2010). "Myriad Genetics: In the eye of the policy storm". Genetics in Medicine. 12: S39–S70. doi:10.1097/GIM.0b013e3181d72661. Retrieved 14 February 2019.
  22. ^ a b King, M.-C. (27 March 2014). ""The Race" to Clone BRCA1". Science. 343 (6178): 1462–1465. doi:10.1126/science.1251900. Retrieved 14 February 2019.
  23. ^ Friedman, Lori S.; Ostermeyer, Elizabeth A.; Szabo, Csilla I.; Dowd, Patrick; Lynch, Eric D.; Rowell, Sarah E.; King, Mary-Claire (December 1994). "Confirmation of BRCA1 by analysis of germline mutations linked to breast and ovarian cancer in ten families". Nature Genetics. 8 (4): 399–404. doi:10.1038/ng1294-399. Retrieved 14 February 2019.
  24. ^ Retrieved 2019-02-15. Missing or empty |title= (help)
  25. ^ "Landmark study offers new information about breast cancer genes Helps participants understand options". EurekaAlert. Sarah Lawrence College. 23 October 2003. Retrieved 14 February 2019.
  26. ^ King, M.-C. (24 October 2003). "Breast and Ovarian Cancer Risks Due to Inherited Mutations in BRCA1 and BRCA2". Science. 302 (5645): 643–646. doi:10.1126/science.1088759. Retrieved 14 February 2019.
  27. ^ Shute, Nancy (March 27, 2014). "How Being Ignored Helped A Woman Discover the Breast Cancer Gene". All Things Considered. Retrieved 29 November 2016.
  28. ^ "Using genetics for human rights". The Online Daily of the University of Washington. May 12, 1997. Retrieved 29 November 2016.
  29. ^ Angier, Natalie (April 27, 1993). "Mary-Claire King: Quest for Genes and Lost Children (Scientist at Work series)". New York Times. Retrieved 29 November 2016.
  30. ^ Harvey-Blankenship, Michele; Pham, Phuong N.; Shigekane, Rachel (June 2010). "GENETIC TRACING, DISAPPEARED CHILDREN AND JUSTICE" (PDF). UNICEF. Innocenti Research Centre. Retrieved 12 February 2019.
  31. ^ Jaffe, Sam (March 15, 2004). "Mary-Claire King". The Scientist. Retrieved 29 November 2016.
  32. ^ King, Mary-Claire (June 10, 2005). "The Biggest Obstacle Is How to Have Enough Hours in the Day". The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved 29 November 2016.
  33. ^ Schubert, Charlotte (2003). "Profile: Mary-Claire King". Nature Medicine. 9 (6): 633. doi:10.1038/nm0603-633. PMID 12778148.
  34. ^ "Mary-Claire King, PhD". Breast Cancer Research Foundation.
  35. ^ "The Shaw Prize Lecture in Life Science and Medicine 2018". The Shaw Prize. Retrieved 12 February 2019.
  36. ^ "Press Release". The Shaw Prize. 13 July 2018. Retrieved 12 February 2019.
  37. ^ "Laureates 2018". Dan David Prize. Retrieved 12 February 2019.
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  40. ^ Donohue, Brian (December 22, 2015). "Mary-Claire King to receive National Medal of Science UW professor is world leader in cancer genetics, discovered BRCA1 gene for inherited breast cancer". UW Medicine News. Retrieved 12 February 2019.
  41. ^ Siegel-Itzkovich, Judy (February 8, 2018). "US researchers receive Dan David Prize for outstanding cancer research". The Jerusalem Post. Retrieved 12 February 2019.
  42. ^ "2016 Academy Prize Laureates". Turkish Academy of Sciences. Retrieved 12 February 2019.
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  44. ^ Strauss, Evelyn (2014). "2014 Lasker~Koshland Special Achievement Award in Medical Science Breast cancer genetics and human rights". Andrew and Mary Lasker Foundation. Retrieved 12 February 2019.
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  51. ^ "Mary-Claire King, PhD" (PDF). Pink Press. Breast Cancer ResearchFoundation. Summer 2006. p. 6. Retrieved 14 February 2019.
  52. ^ Oakes, Elizabeth H., ed. (2007). "Mary-Claire King". Encyclopedia of World Scientists. Detroit: Infobase Publishing. pp. 182–183.
  53. ^ "2018 Honorary Degree Recipients". University of British Columbia. 2018. Retrieved 12 February 2019.
  54. ^ "195th Congregation (2016) Mary-Claire KING Doctor of Science honoris causa". The University of Hong Kong. Retrieved 12 February 2019.
  55. ^ "Yale Confers 10 Honorary Doctorates at Commencement 2007 May 28, 2007". Yale University. May 28, 2007. Retrieved 12 February 2019.
  56. ^ "11 awarded honorary degrees". Harvard Gazette. June 5, 2003. Retrieved 29 November 2016.
  57. ^ "Honorary Degree Recipients". Carleton College. Retrieved 12 February 2019.