Mendel Medal 2018 – Professor Mary-Claire King

The Genetics Society is delighted to announce that Prof. Mary-Claire King, of the University of Washington, has accepted the 2018 Mendel Medal. Mary-Claire has made major contributions across an amazing breadth of genetics and genomics. During her PhD (1976) with Allan Wilson, she was the first to show the high level of conservation between human and  chimpanzee genomes. In the face of much scepticism at the time that genes could contribute to common disease, in 1990 she was the first to show that there was a gene (later identified as Brca1) that predisposed for early onset human breast and ovarian cancer, and this discovery revolutionised human genetics.

Moreover, Mary-Claire has shown how genetics can be used for the greater human good. She first applied her genetics skills to human rights work in 1984, when she  began working with the ‘Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo’ in Argentina to identify missing persons, ultimately identifying 59 children, born to political dissents in prison and who were then “disappeared” by the Argentine military dictatorship.  These children were illegally “adopted” by military families and Mary-Claire’s work helped to return them to their biological families.

Mary-Claire King has since 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.

Mary-Claire King presented her Mendel Medal Lecture at the Royal Institution on 8th March 2019, coinciding with International Women’s Day and following on from the Mendals Day event.

Feedback from the lecture includes the following:

Dear Genetics Society

I recently attended the Genetics Society’s Mendel Lecture to hear Professor Mary-Claire King’s talk about her life and work.  I’m not a scientist, however, I’ve read a lot of ‘secondary information’ about Dr King’s work for reasons I will explain.  I saw she was giving this lecture quite by chance on Facebook and booked myself a place immediately.  I consider my life to have been impacted by Dr King’s work in the most profound way because I have a mutation in the BRCA gene.  Dr King’s work was, as you know, instrumental in identifying the BRCA1 gene and its mutations.  You can perhaps imagine then what it might mean for me to have the chance not only to hear the woman who is responsible for identifying my inherited mutation speak, but to ask her a direct question about her work.  This was an opportunity I never dreamed could be a possibility.  It’s an experience that will stay with me for ever, so I wanted to write and thank you.