Beginning in 1988, Margie Profet published three papers that caused considerable discussion within segments of the scientific community.
The first, “The evolution of pregnancy sickness as protection to the embryo against Pleistocene teratogens”, published in the journal Evolutionary Theory, proposes that “pregnancy sickness evolved as an adaptive strategy to protect women from ingesting teratogenic substances”, says Caitlyn Placek, an anthropologist from Ball State University, in Indiana.
Writing in the Encyclopaedia of Evolutionary Psychological Science, Placek says teratogens are “any environmental or chemical agent that can disrupt fetal development”, and she notes that “formal empirical tests of Profet’s pregnancy toxin-avoidance hypothesis… have generated mixed findings”.
The second paper, “The function of allergy: Immunological defense against toxins”, was published in the Quarterly Review of Biology in 1991. In it, Placek says, Profet argues that “allergies evolved as a last line of defense against toxins, including toxins from ingested foods, injected drugs and venoms, inhaled substances, skin allergens, and helminths” (parasitic worms that cause a wide variety of infectious diseases).
Two years later, the paper “Menstruation as a defense against pathogens transported by sperm” was published in the same journal. In it, Profet attempts to explain the adaptive significance of female menstruation.
The same year she won a $US225,000 grant from the MacArthur Foundation – a so-called “genius award”. A story in The Los Angeles Times called her a “self-taught evolutionary biologist” who “works at a UC Berkeley laboratory, does not have a doctoral degree and has never owned an automobile”.
A “self-taught evolutionary biologist”? According to Placek, Profet was “recognised as a key figure in bridging evolutionary theory with health sciences, but also stirred up controversy among biologists and physicians in the popular media”.
“Prior to Profet’s work, researchers had not explained these topics through the lens of evolutionary theory; instead, these physiological processes were largely portrayed as biological anomalies or evolutionary by-products,” Placek says, noting that “her educational training did not include formal studies in evolutionary biology”.
Margaret Profet, better known as Margie, was born on 7 August 1958 and grew up in Manhattan Beach, near Los Angeles. She received a bachelor’s degree in political philosophy from Harvard University in 1980 and one in physics from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1985.
She worked as a research associate at UC Berkeley and as a visiting scholar in astronomy at the University of Washington, in Seattle, and began a PhD in anthropology from Harvard but did not finish.
In May 2012, Psychology Today magazine published a story by Mike Martin with the headline “The Mysterious Case of the Vanishing Genius”. That “vanishing genius” was Margie Profet.
Martin’s story covers her “three landmark papers” and two books – Protecting Your Baby-to-Be, in 1995, and Pregnancy Sickness: Using Your Body’s Natural Defenses to Protect Your Baby-to-Be, in 1997 – and says her “theories were hotly debated among scientists but embraced by mainstream media”.
He says, “magazines and newspapers played up her model looks and touted her beautiful mind, and he calls her work “controversial to this day”.
He also says Profet’s allergy theory, “which has thus far received less attention than her other work, may be her most important”.
Martin also describes Profet as “given to long spells of melancholy, depression, and antisocial behaviour”, and explains how, by 2002, she’d cut ties with family, friends, colleagues, everyone.
The story ends on a positive note, however. Shortly after Martin’s story was published, the Nature.com newsblog reports, Profet contacted her mother. “Margie is finally home now,” the report quotes her as saying. “She is very happy to be reunited with her family, and we are overjoyed to have her back.”
Jeff Glorfeld is a former senior editor of The Age newspaper in Australia, and is now a freelance journalist based in California, US.
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