Margie Profet did not have a Ph.D. In fact, she didn't even have a bachelor's degree in evolutionary biology, the field that most of her work revolved around. But she won a McArthur Genius grant and presented some really interesting theories on the body's defenses against cancer and poisonous substances that might turn out to be correct. And then she disappeared.
Nobody has seen or heard from Margie Profet since at least 2004 or 2005, writes Mike Martin at Psychology Today. His piece is an interesting biography of a woman who was incredibly intelligent, and who also likely suffered from some serious symptoms of mental illness for years. Only her closest family and friends seem to have been aware of what was going on in Profet's personal world. Over the course of the late 90s and early 2000s, Profet shut them, and everyone else, out of her life so successfully that nobody is really sure when she vanished.
This is one of those long reads that will take you a little while to get through, but it's worth checking out. Even aside from the mysterious disappearance, I found Martin's explanation of Margie Profet's contribution to science really fascinating. Profet presented several, interconnected theories suggesting that allergies, morning sickness, and menstruation all evolved as means of blocking or removing poisonous, cancer-causing, and disease-causing substances from the body.
For Profet, all three biological processes were part of the same system. But some parts of her theory have held up better than others. The idea that allergies might be a biological defense? Other scientists have found some evidence to support that—although much of that evidence seems to be in the form of potentially interesting correlations between the presence of allergies and reduced risk of certain cancers. It's still not been proven. Meanwhile, Profet's insistence that menstruation exists to rid the body of toxic substances has been pretty uniformly ripped apart.
Three years after her QRB paper on menstruation, Profet’s most ardent critic surfaced with a rebuttal in the same journal. Point by point, University of Michigan anthropology professor Beverly Strassmann deconstructed Profet’s argument. Logic and prior research didn’t support her claim that menstrual bleeding reduces infections, Strassmann wrote. It happens too rarely in the life of a woman to have such significance. Profet also predicted that promiscuity would correlate with menstruation frequency. But no such correlation exists, Strassmann retorted: The comparatively chaste bleed just as much as the sexually profligate.
What's interesting to me is that all of Profet's work—whether some of it turns out to be right or not—seems to have been born, at least partially, from the same symptoms that eventually, probably, led to her disappearance.
Evolutionary psychologist David Buss once noted that Profet “seemed to possess a unique view of the world that included a paranoia consumed with invading pathogens and parasites,” recalls his former student Barry Kuhle, now a University of Scranton (Pa.) psychology professor. This paranoia may have fueled her genius. It may also explain her disappearance.
Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. She writes a monthly column for The New York Times Magazine and is the author of Before the Lights Go Out, a book about electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy. You can find Maggie on Twitter and Facebook.