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Lost Profet
June 30, 2009 9:24 AM   Subscribe

Margie Profet was the "It Girl" of the 1990s, being awarded a McArthur Grant for her work in evolutionary biology in 1993 despite a lack of formal scientific training. Her papers on motherhood and the evolutionary influences on menstruation and morning sickness were hailed as revolutionary by some, but also dismissed as unscientific and criticized for numerous flaws in logic by others. As pressure mounted, she became more involved in her work, and less connected with her family and friends.

Then, one day, nobody heard from Margie again. Those close to her knew of no threats on her life, no scorned exes, no stalkers, but there were hints of mental illness that may have led her to disappear.
posted by AzraelBrown (33 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite

 


Her recent life sounds like a Cinderella story. Beginning in the mid Eighties, Profet practiced her solitary scholarship in a Berkeley studio modeled on a medieval garret complete with stucco fireplace and heavy wooden ceiling beams. A cadre of squirrels and scrub jays roamed the apartment with impunity, seeking the peanuts she kept ready,

How is this sanitary? The reporter didn't think this was weird? If she had fifty cats, he'd be quick to label her a weirdo instead of St. Francis.
posted by anniecat at 9:49 AM on June 30, 2009


I'm a little puzzled here - does she do anything other than sit in a room and write? I don't have any beef with evolutionary biology but is there any research or experimental work involved here? Coming up with ideas is only part of what science is all about.
posted by GuyZero at 10:03 AM on June 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


Wow, that's weird. I remember hearing about her and wanting to know more, then I forgot about it.
posted by DU at 10:09 AM on June 30, 2009


I'm a little puzzled here - does she do anything other than sit in a room and write? I don't have any beef with evolutionary biology but is there any research or experimental work involved here? Coming up with ideas is only part of what science is all about.

No, that's basically it. Which isn't quite as useless as you might think. In biology, we've got a huge mountain of data and synthesizing it - finding patterns, proposing explanations and predicting tests - is a mighty useful thing. Especially since experiments in evolutionary biology can sometimes be difficult to perform due to sheer scale. Hell, 'sitting in a room and writing' is all that a lot of senior scientists do.

Years ago I saw Profet talk. I still don't know what to think of it - never does the scientific community - but there's more than enough room for her out-of-the-box thinking. It's a sad loss.
posted by outlier at 10:13 AM on June 30, 2009 [3 favorites]


Wow, sad and interesting story. I do wish the primary link (after the break) directed me to the first page of the article rather than the fourth page; that was confusing.

Feeding squirrels and jays from your window sill is pretty standard in Berkeley, and both are bold and greedy for something as tasty as peanuts, but unless they were nesting inside the apartment, "roaming with impunity" is probably a bit of a journalistic exaggeration. We've got lots of wildlife passing through our yards and sometimes our houses. Encouraging a neighborhood squirrel to enter your house to get peanuts might be considered a tad eccentric, but not weird or unsanitary.
posted by tula at 10:16 AM on June 30, 2009


Award committee wooed by attractive young woman making impressive sounding, if unsubstantiated claims.

"Well, sir, there's nothing on earth like a genuine, Bona fide, Electrified, Six-page Thesis paper!"

I think the expression, "not even false" comes to mind.
posted by leotrotsky at 10:18 AM on June 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


Award committee wooed by attractive young woman making impressive sounding, if unsubstantiated claims.

"Well, sir, there's nothing on earth like a genuine, Bona fide, Electrified, Six-page Thesis paper!"

I think the expression, "not even false" comes to mind.


So are you dismissing her work on the basis that was an attractive, young (35?), woman when she received the McArthur? Or do you have substantive criticisms? 'Cause it sure sounds like the former.
posted by mr_roboto at 10:24 AM on June 30, 2009 [4 favorites]


...yes it has nothing to do with the fact that she lacks ANY relevant graduate training and her suppositions have been completely demolished by expert opinion in the field.

The credulity of the McArthur 'Genius' Grant committee is more the point of the comment.
posted by leotrotsky at 10:33 AM on June 30, 2009


MacArthur.
posted by AwkwardPause at 10:38 AM on June 30, 2009


...suppositions have been completely demolished by expert opinion in the field.

From the last link:

“Margie was not an outcast, nor a lone voice in the wilderness,” he explains, pointing to her notable supporters. “Bruce Ames is surely one of the most respected biochemists of our time, and George Williams one of the greatest evolutionary biologists of the 20th century. And of course, winning a MacArthur grant testifies to the support she received from some well placed and established people.”

The scientific establishment may ultimately vindicate some of her theories too, Symons adds, ironic given what he calls “the criticisms of some establishment nutritionists.”

Williams and co-authors have since written that first-trimester food aversions function as Profet proposed. But in updating the idea for a modern woman's diet, they also allay the concerns of nutritionists who have argued that natural toxins in vegetables simply aren’t at high enough levels to threaten a fetus—or precipitate pregnancy sicknesses, as Profet surmised.


So there's that, right.
posted by mr_roboto at 10:39 AM on June 30, 2009


From the first link:

I get phone calls from all over the country. When women say they had no apparent pregnancy sickness whatsoever, I usually don't believe it and start grilling them. Could she eat Chinese food, certain spices? Usually they admit, "Oh, I did throw up on mushrooms once," or, "Okay, I threw up on coffee." After you interrogate them, you find out they really did have pregnancy sickness. But one women didn't, and she ate everything--onions, spices, all that stuff you shouldn't during the first trimester. Her baby was born with a suite of developmental defects. She called me because she was two weeks pregnant with her second child and wanted to know what to do to avoid inflicting toxins on her baby.

Reads like something straight off the mothering.com boards. Pure shit.
posted by peep at 10:40 AM on June 30, 2009 [6 favorites]


The credulity of the McArthur 'Genius' Grant committee is more the point of the comment.

They were credulous because of her gender and age, right? Just like you wrote in your first comment. The wicked young thing used her feminine wiles to seduce them into giving her $250,000. I don't know how else to interpret what you wrote.
posted by mr_roboto at 10:44 AM on June 30, 2009 [3 favorites]


The thing about MacArthur awards (and, full disclosure, I have two friends who have received them) is that they're so focused on "innovation" that sometimes they reward sheer contrarianism.

That said, it sounded like Ms. Profet was doing what theoretical science is supposed to do, which is collating evidence and trying out hypotheses. Also pursuing Ph.D. studies at a well-regarded institution of higher education, which is hardly a "crackpot outsider" thing to do.

And then the schizophrenia kicked her ass, which is sad.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:52 AM on June 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


That said, it sounded like Ms. Profet was doing what theoretical science is supposed to do, which is collating evidence and trying out hypotheses. Also pursuing Ph.D. studies at a well-regarded institution of higher education, which is hardly a "crackpot outsider" thing to do.

I'll buy this to a point. That point, though, is somewhere shy of publishing pop-sci scaremongering books (based on nothing other than your speculative hypotheses) that prey on pregant women's fears about birth defects. Maybe the crazy made her do it, but writing "vegetables will kill your baby books" and making big money out of it is, in itself, a despicable act.
posted by yoink at 11:01 AM on June 30, 2009


Reads like something straight off the mothering.com boards. Pure shit.

That reads like a textbook example of why, even if you are brilliant and talented, you should really spend a long time in formal experimental and academic study before you start acting like an authority on your topics of interest. She's fixated on a very interesting hypothesis and idea but never took the time to develop an experimental instinct and is instead fitting the anecdotes to fit with her hypotheses, and doesn't have the instinct many people would have to play down the universal applicability of her ideas. Graduate school forces you to check the intellectual history of your ideas to make sure they're original and not a dead end that has been explored before, then to come up with experiments that would give evidence for or disprove your idea, and then, maybe, it might illuminate a little bit more about what you're exploring that you didn't know before. She, on the other hand, came up with an intelligent, insightful idea about how things might work and then started declaring it God's Truth and starting giving health advice.

That doesn't mean she wasn't smart or that her ideas weren't good or that she didn't deserve the McArthur grant-- she seems like the sort of person it was made for. It means that she wasn't going to make it past the generalist and theoretician stage, even though she wanted to and, it seems, didn't know that she needed to.

But other than that, what a sad story. She lived in Cambridge, not too far away from where I lived, and even though "the genius who goes crazy" is a well-worn cliché, Cambridge is full of the "walking wounded" who had a lot of intellectual potential but had their lives get derailed somewhere along the way. Normally, though, I'd expect to find her simply hanging around one of the dorms, clearly much older than the students, attending every single departmental guest lecture, or working at one of the coffee shops to pay her rent while she figures out what she'll do next.
posted by deanc at 11:03 AM on June 30, 2009 [16 favorites]


writing "vegetables will kill your baby books" and making big money out of it is, in itself, a despicable act.

I don't think she did that, though. You're talking about her as if she was Kevin Trudeau. People can be wrong about their hypotheses, and not trying to take advantage of others. And she doesn't seem to have made "big money" from her writing.
posted by Sidhedevil at 11:09 AM on June 30, 2009


Deanc speaks my mind in a more nuanced and less inflammatory way.
posted by leotrotsky at 11:15 AM on June 30, 2009


This sucks. I thought she was awesome, and I hate to read this. Augh.
posted by ifjuly at 11:58 AM on June 30, 2009




Award committee wooed by attractive young woman making impressive sounding, if unsubstantiated claims.

Something I learned in graduate school: whether you're ugly or pretty, if you're female, your appearance is always a problem.

The MacArthur Foundation is famous for giving awards to people who operate out of the loop and whose work you've never heard of. Maybe their labors will turn out to be significant, maybe they won't. That's not the point of the award. Profet's work was exactly the kind of thing that they notice and recognize. Regardless of the attractiveness of the recipient.
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 12:40 PM on June 30, 2009 [4 favorites]


Yeah, very depressing. And her theory about morning sickness-- far from being discredited-- has actually been confirmed. People with worse morning sickness are less likely to miscarry and while modern veggies aren't actually dangerous, in the past, some might have been.
posted by Maias at 12:49 PM on June 30, 2009


Theorist claims: But one women didn't, and she ate everything--onions, spices, all that stuff you shouldn't during the first trimester. Her baby was born with a suite of developmental defects.

That just strikes me as utter, absolute, scare-mongering bullshit. I've been pregnant, and never had morning sickness...and I ate anything that wasn't nailed down. (My son is well above average physically, emotionally, and intellectually.) My friend who just gave birth was so nauseous all the way through her pregnancy that they were pumping her with the drugs they give to chemo patients. I didn't matter what she ate, everything made her sick. Her body doesn't like being pregnant. It has nothing to do with caramelized onions.

I have known dozens and dozens of pregnant woman, and talked to hundreds more. The very idea that organic veggies are causing miscarriages and birth defects is ridiculous and that she published a book telling pregnant women not to eat veggies is obscene.

And if people were really trying to find her, why didn't someone call her publisher? They're sending the checks from these scare-mongering fiction-parading-as-science books somewhere.

Sidhedevil responded to: writing "vegetables will kill your baby books" and making big money out of it is, in itself, a despicable act. by posting:

I don't think she did that, though. You're talking about her as if she was Kevin Trudeau. People can be wrong about their hypotheses, and not trying to take advantage of others. And she doesn't seem to have made "big money" from her writing.


Oh...but she did. From the article linked above: Sounding the alarm in two popular books, 1995's Protecting Your Baby-To-Be: Preventing Birth Defects in the First Trimester and a 1997 sequel, Pregnancy Sickness:Using Your Body's Natural Defenses to Protect Your Baby-To-Be, ...

She took unproven theories and the foisted them off as truth. When the American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology published the paper Profet, profits, and proof: Do nausea and vomiting of early pregnancy protect women from "harmful" vegetables?, she couldn't refute the science, so instead said "Well...I don't want to be a biologist anymore. I'm gonna go study math instead." But she never pulled the books. They're still available on Amazon, and are still getting the attention of the "vaccines cause developmental disorders" people.

I mean, I'm sorry she disappeared and worried a bunch of folks, but her pseudo-science is just that. If she had kept it theoretical, I wouldn't have an issue. But she sold this bullshit as truth to vulnerable suckers. It's P.T. Barnum science, and for that, I have no respect.
posted by dejah420 at 1:32 PM on June 30, 2009 [3 favorites]


People with worse morning sickness are less likely to miscarry

But isn't this because they have greater levels of hGC, i.e. a stronger, healthier pregnancy? Women with low betas or slow rising betas often miscarry - even before they have a chance to eat a lot of "toxic" vegetables. Their pregnancies were doomed from the beginning, and it's the low levels of hGC that result in low or absent nausea - I believe Profet's explanation here would be the lack of nausea causes unrestricted eating, which causes miscarriage?
posted by peep at 1:47 PM on June 30, 2009


I think the issue is where her evolutionary biology theories crossed over from being descriptive to prescriptive. Saying morning sickness is an adaptation to protect the fetus from toxins is way, waaay different from saying that you should avoid vegetables or your baby will be deformed.
posted by GuyZero at 1:55 PM on June 30, 2009


In 1995, when I was writing my thesis at Cafe Allegro in Seattle, Margie hung out there fairly often. I spoke with her a couple times, and was taken by her broad-ranging curiosity (she was dabbling in cosmology at the time) and her enthusiasm. Her candle certainly was burning brightly. I wish her the best.
posted by dylanjames at 4:07 PM on June 30, 2009


I hadn't known previously about those books-- that is pretty gross. It sounds like she was one of those people balanced on the precipice between brilliance and insanity-- and insanity won. It's very sad.
posted by Maias at 4:15 PM on June 30, 2009


I don't think she did that, though. You're talking about her as if she was Kevin Trudeau. People can be wrong about their hypotheses, and not trying to take advantage of others. And she doesn't seem to have made "big money" from her writing.

I notice that Pregnancy Sickness: Using Your Body's Natural Defenses To Protect Your Baby-to-be is still in print (and highly reviewed on Amazon.com). I wonder where the publishers send the royalty checks?
posted by yoink at 5:22 PM on June 30, 2009


"Okay, I threw up on coffee."

I've done this before. I'm pretty sure I wasn't pregnant.

Of course I only had three hours of biology in college.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 7:17 PM on June 30, 2009


I actually think there's a place for people to have wild ideas that they can't prove, science is a collaborative activity, and if an idea is interesting enough, there are lots of disciplined methodical people out there looking for interesting ideas to investigate.


I remember when she got the genius grant, being a little jealous because I had also wondered whether the function of menstruation was to eradicate micro-organisms from the uterus.
My friend told me at the time "it's not enough to have these ideas you need to prove them"

i hope she's ok
posted by compound eye at 3:28 AM on July 1, 2009


Weird. Almost every comment here is also in the comments of the first page of the last link in the FPP?
posted by plastic_animals at 6:55 AM on July 1, 2009 [3 favorites]


The comment copying is indeed bizarre...
posted by Never teh Bride at 7:26 AM on July 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


MeTa re: the comment copying.
posted by mr_roboto at 11:00 AM on July 1, 2009


she was dabbling in cosmology at the time

Cosmology is not something you dabble in.
posted by escabeche at 5:03 PM on July 1, 2009


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