Dr. Mary-Claire King, a geneticist who has dedicated much of her career to studying the influence of genetics on the human condition, has made many contributions toward improving the quality of life and care of individuals with genetically based conditions such as inherited deafness, breast cancer, and schizophrenia. In addition, Dr. King is well-known in the human rights community for pioneering the use of genetics to promote human rights, including through her work to reunite families separated in Argentina from the mid-1970s to 1980s.
During this period of state-sponsored violence and human rights abuse, many of those targeted were pregnant women and new mothers. It is estimated that during this time nearly 500 children who were born during their mothers’ detention were kidnapped and illegally “adopted”, often by military families. In response, Las Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo (Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo) led a movement to locate the children who had been taken. Reunifying these families posed obvious challenges, including the need to prove the identity of children suspected to have been kidnapped. In order to remove the children from their "adoptive" families, the newly installed democratic government required proof of the biological familial connection. After being contacted by Las Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo, Dr. King first applied polymerase chain reaction (PCR) sequencing of mitochondrial DNA from blood to the identification of relatives and to teeth and bones of human remains. The analysis of these assays allowed for definitive identification of genetic relationships between an individual and a relative from their maternal line. Dr. King soon after developed a technique to identify genetic markers using dental samples, which has proved invaluable in determining familial ties when attempting to identify human remains. Dr. King's findings have been accepted as evidence of biological relation by the Supreme Court of Argentina and led to the identification, and eventual reunification, of over 100 Argentinian children and their biological families.
Dr. King’s lab continues to lend its expertise to human rights investigations worldwide and serves as a consultant for the United Nations Forensic Anthropology Team. Her scientific discoveries have revolutionized the methods used to identify individuals and have since been used to reunite families around the world.