How One Woman Overcame Personal Struggles to Impact Millions

Dr. Mary-Claire King

Mary-Claire was born on February 27, 1946 to Harvey and Clarice King in Evanston, Illinois – a city just north of Chicago. She, younger brother Paul, a stepsister and a stepbrother all had a relatively average childhood. The most traumatic occurrence in Mary-Claire’s life was when her close friend died of cancer at the age of fifteen. Later in her life, that loss would help guide Mary-Claire to discover her life’s purpose. Her friend’s death was devastating (as is all death) – sadly, it was but the first of many tragic events which lay ahead for Mary-Claire.

In 1966 at the age of twenty, Mary-Claire graduated cum laude from prestigious Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. Her degree was in mathematics. Subsequently, she would pursue a doctorate in statistics at the University of California, Berkeley. One of her elective classes – genetics – would, unexpectedly, change the course of Mary-Claire’s life. That class set Mary-Claire’s passion for genetics ablaze. She changed majors and began her pursuit of a PhD in genetics.

The late 1960’s were very turbulent times in the U.S. – and nowhere was that more evident than on the Berkeley campus. Mary-Claire was passionately opposed to the Vietnam War and keenly focused on environmental concerns. After working with consumer advocate Ralph Nader for a year, he offered her a full-time position in Washington, D.C. She consulted with her mentor, genetics professor Dr. Allan Wilson. Rather than moving, she accepted a position on his research team.

In that role, she combined her two loves – statistics and genetics – to research the molecular similarities between chimpanzees and humans. Her work became her doctoral thesis, which proved that 99% of amino acid sequences in humans and chimpanzees are identical. That would be the first significant product of Mary-Claire’s work – but certainly not the last.

The decade of the ’70’s would feature several significant life events for Mary-Claire. She’d earned her doctorate and gotten married in 1973. She and her husband, a zoologist, spent time teaching in Chile, leaving as revolution exploded in that country. One of her most treasured gifts was the birth of her daughter – Emily.

Mary-Claire had become an associate professor of epidemiology at UC Berkeley and in 1981 had earned the opportunity to visit Washington D.C. to interview for a significant research grant. What happened next would make the loss of her friend so many years ago seem almost bearable.

Mary-Claire’s D.C. trip was scheduled for the first week of April, 1981. Just days before the trip, on April 1st (no kidding) Mary-Claire’s husband informed her that he’d fallen in love with one of his graduate students and was leaving the marriage. That was shock enough, but it also left Mary-Claire with no one to watch her daughter, Emily, while she traveled. She was able to convince her mother, who lived in Chicago, to jump on a plane and stay with Emily.

The next day Mary-Claire went to work per usual, picked up Emily and went to their home. As they walked through the front door, it became instantly obvious that their house had been robbed and ransacked. The house was a mess – there was no way to know what may have been stolen and what had been taken by her husband.

The next day, Mary-Claire’s mom arrived. It wasn’t until the ride from the airport that her mother learned of her son-in-law’s leaving – which sent her into hysterics. “How have you let this happen to your family?” she screamed at her daughter. “You need to stay home and care for her. I’m going back to Chicago!” Wow!

Mary-Claire’s boss was, coincidentally, in D.C. He told her “Bring Emily with you. I’ll watch her while you present.” So, Mary-Claire ended up at the airport ready to fly to D.C. with her daughter and with her mother, who was Chicago bound. In line for their tickets, Mary-Claire realized she had to walk her mother to her gate. Another quandary – needing to stay in line to pick up her tickets yet needing to escort her mother. As she and her mother had another heated discussion, she heard a strangely familiar voice behind her.

“Emily and I will be just fine.” Mary-Claire, instantly grateful and relieved, merely said “Thank you.” Of course, her mother was indignant that she’d leave Emily with a stranger. But the man wasn’t a stranger – not really. It was Joe DiMaggio. Of all the people who could have been behind them, it turned out to be a sports hero, an American icon – a person that was caring, but one that Mary-Claire instinctively knew that she could trust with Emily.

Mom was escorted to her gate. Emily and Joe got the tickets and had a pleasant visit while waiting for Mary-Claire to return. The story could only have one ending. Emily and her mother made it to D.C., where Mary-Claire was awarded a giant research grant.

No, that’s not the end of the story. It was just the beginning of another chapter in Mary-Claire’s life. She would go on first to theorize and then discover the BRCA1 gene. That would be the single most noteworthy discovery in the battle against breast cancer. That discovery proved the connection between genetics and breast cancer. Previously, it was a common belief that cancer was caused by environmental factors. Women would now be able to use their genetic profile to assess their potential risk for cancer. Her methodology would then be used to research other forms of cancer and other diseases. Tens of thousands of lives have been saved and countless more have experienced a higher quality of life because Dr. Mary-Claire King is a fearless brand.

Fearless brands are passionate, resilient and persistent

Dr. Mary-Claire King not only discovered what is often called the ‘breast cancer gene’, she has worked to identify kidnapped children in Argentina; to seek the cause of, and hopefully a cure for, deafness; and her work has laid the groundwork for advancements in other disease related research – all leading to a healthier and more knowledgeable society.

Dr. King’s significant contributions to society came in spite of the troubles that she faced. It’s important to note that she was able to walk through life’s challenges because of the kindness and basic good found in the human spirit. Dr. Wilson, Officer Rodriguez (who had handled the burglary), Joe DiMaggio, and countless others were there to provide support in ways unexpected, but essential to her well-being.

As much as Dr. King’s work had a positive impact on society, we can learn even more from her about living a productive life and building a fearless brand.

Passion leads to purpose; persistence leads to accomplishment – Dr. King discovered her passion while sitting in a genetics class. Her purpose, researching a cure for cancer, was in part related to the tragic death of her fifteen-year-old friend. Building our fearless brand allows us to live a rewarding life. We need to embrace our passion, recognize our purpose and be persistent – regardless of the seemingly insurmountable roadblocks we’re met with in life.

Seek success…and significance – It’s true, seeking to achieve success and add significance to the world is both possible and rewarding. As Dr. King puts it: “The most daunting task for us is not tackling new discovery but rather integrating discovery into a meaningful social context.” In other words, we need to strive to have our talents, gifts, and efforts be as valuable to society as they are to ourselves.

Remain teachable – be inquisitive – think bigger –  Dr. Mary-Claire King is one of the brightest and most highly educated people in the world. Yet she is perpetually striving to learn more. She, like most researchers, continuously questions the norm, seeks new sources of information, and ponders if there’s another question. In her words: “The most important questions come from people on the front lines, the most righteous projects demand the most rigorous science, and no question is too big to ask.” We will achieve more if we mimic the traits of Dr. King and other researchers – remain teachable, be inquisitive, ask bigger questions.

Dr. Mary-Claire King is a high-achiever on a global scale. Currently at the University of Washington, her work continues to have worldwide impact. It is doubtful that you and I are going to achieve similar far-reaching results. However, we can learn from her behavior – we can embrace our passion, find our purpose, be persistent, become a fearless brand. We can have a powerful impact in our world – and if we all do that, there’s only one possible outcome – a better world for all of us.

To hear Dr. King’s story in her own words, click here for “Who Can You Trust?” (via



Coach, International Speaker and Thought Partner - Bill’s mission is to add value to the world – one brand at a time. Bill guides individuals and companies alike in building what he refers to as a ‘fearless brand’. This is the process of discovering, embracing and delivering their greatest value – which allows them to realize greater profit. Read More

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