Margaret “Margie” Profet has returned. In Psychology Today this month, journalist Mike Martin tells the haunting tale of a promising young evolutionary biologist who vanished without a trace. Profet won a coveted MacArthur Foundation ‘genius grant’ in 1993 on the basis of her compelling but controversial ideas about the adaptive value of allergies, menstruation and morning sickness.
She subsequently absorbed an eclectic curricula, taking classes in physics, math, evolution and toxicology on both coasts of the United States at the University of California, Berkeley. She then moved to Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, for graduate studies, then West, then East, never finishing a PhD but penning several influential papers and books. After several years in the spotlight, she receded, not just from public view, but completely. She vanished. Martin had taken a physics class with Profet at the University of Washington in the 1990s. He came across some of her work in 2009 and Googled her. He was surprised to see a bare-bones Wikipedia entry with no recent updates and some debate in the discussion notes as to her whereabouts. He spent the next three years trying to track her down.
It was not simply a here-one-day-gone-the-next-type vanishing. She cut ties with her family around 2002 and gradually receded from contact with colleagues, friends and just about everyone else. The trail Martin was following went cold as of late 2004 to early 2005. Colleagues and friends say they fear she was fighting a losing battle with mental illness. Profet’s mother, Karen, filed a missing-persons report with Cambridge police, searched the streets and shelters and even hired a private detective to track down her daughter.
Russell Eubanks, a software engineer and ex-boyfriend of Margie’s, told Martin:
“I picture three possible scenarios. One, she’s dead by her own hand or through foul play. Two, she’s alive and under the care of someone, but mentally unbalanced. Finally, she got tired of the hassle of fame and academia, maybe found someone she’s comfortable with, and decided to drop out and live a very private life. I hope it is the latter.”
Although many suspected the worst, shortly after the story ran, Martin says he began to receive e-mails suggesting that Margie was alive and interested in reconnecting with her family. On 18 May he received a message from Karen.
From her e-mail, which she gave Martin permission to share (emphasis from the original):
“Margie had called us on Monday, after someone who knew her Googled her name and found from your article that she was being sought by family and former colleagues. She had not known that people were looking for her and deeply regrets giving anyone cause for concern on her account.
At the time we lost track of her, Margie was in severe physical pain. Not wanting to trouble anyone else, she did not disclose the fact to us or to her friends, but moved to a new location in which she thought the pain would soon diminish. Instead, it persisted for many years.
Unable to work because of it and subsequent injuries, she had long lived in poverty, sustained largely by the religion she had come to early in the decade.
Margie is finally home now, recovering from her long ordeal and hoping to find work in the near future. She is very happy to be reunited with her family, and we are overjoyed to have her back.”
It is a hopeful new movement to what Martin had referred to on his own website as an ‘unfinished symphony’. Profet’s theoretical work continues to have an impact. In fact, in a Perspectives article in Nature this past month, immunologist Ruslan Medzhitov and his colleagues discussed the role of allergic responses in host defenses against noxious toxins, collecting new work that supports some of Profet’s thoughts on the adaptive role of allergies. Martin says that he’s glad that his story seems to have helped reunite the Profets and that Margie’s work still seems relevant: “I think it’s wonderful that she’s being rediscovered on this level by really high-power folks that are taking the work further than she had taken it.”