Margie Profet: a controversial scientist who went missing

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.

Read the rest at Psychology Today


  1. Meh, my understanding of allergy is that is the normal human immune system gone fear mongering. Basically the biological equivalent of the US security apparatus post-9/11.

      1. I am not saying it is a problem, i am questioning the view of it being a feature rather than a bug. Still, allergies are all over the place these days. Apparently thanks to our  overly clean living.

          1. Well there was a recent report about rat developing allergies after being given antibiotics, while a test group in the same environment did not.

  2. “For Profet, all three biological processes were part of the same system.”

    The ability to unify theories is definitely a sign of intelligence, however the desire to unify all not-necessarily-connected theories can also be a sign of madness :( 

    Hopefully her life could offer some benefits to society and isn’t only restricted to the malformed ideas and linkages. Hopefully she’s at least able to live happily on her own terms, or at worst, able to get the care she needs.

    1. And that is why there is such a thing as independent testing and verification, tho that cornerstone is under siege by the increasing cost and complexities of experiments.

  3. “There is a thin line between Genius and Madness: I have erased this line.” – Oscar Levant

  4. I met Margie at a conference in the mid-90s or early 00s.  Interesting person, hope she’s ok.

  5. How does boingboing decide which pseudo-scientists to mock, and which to present as creative geniuses working outside the constraints of the scientific establishment?

    Is it a judgement of character? Politics?

    1.  She seems to not have been selling snake oil or trying to convince people to stay away from healthy procedures, while also adding to the general pool of scientific information even if one of her most passionate proposals seems to have been quite wrong.

      For those reasons, as an unbiased reader this presentation of her here seems reasonable to me.

    2. Her theories were substantive and TESTABLE (falsifiable), and were published in scientific peer-reviewed journals.  That’s a legitimate contribution to real science.

  6. “Bruce Ames met Margaret Profet while he was teaching a toxicology seminar to physics students at Berkeley. Her soft-spoken yet astute remarks stopped him mid-stride. In a “who are you” moment, Ames asked Profet about her background. He “almost fainted” when Profet told him she was a waitress.”

    Er, by the time she was at Berkeley she had a bachelor’s from Harvard in political philosophy.  To identify herself as a waitress was disingenuous, but makes excellent copy.

    1. Can you get any job other than waiting tables with a bachelor’s in political philosophy? While we’re at it, are we assuming that nobody in the service industry has a degree? And is a bachelor’s in political philosophy a credential for scientific acumen?

      1. 1) If you’re saying she was being self-deprecating, I can see how that was lost in transcription. 

        2) Good point: I took the prof’s astonishment to be at the idea that she was uneducated, not that she was doing nothing with her degree. Details of her education were only given after the quoted paragraph, hence my reaction that the writing of the article was overly-dramatic. 

        3) That was my point, though I may not have made it clearly: making a contribution to the field of evolutionary biology while having a background in political philosophy (and later physics) is impressive enough without having to suggest they are a wage slave in the service industry.

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