Margie Profet remembers being awakened by her cat from a deep sleep in the spring of 1988. Her dream was still vivid: Cartoonlike eggs were floating down from ovaries, through the Fallopian tubes, to a pear-shaped uterus. “But,” says Profet, “the uterus had all these tiny black triangles stuck in the lining, and they were coming out with the flow. I knew immediately that the triangles were pathogens. I remember thinking, ‘So that’s why we bleed!’ ”
Five years later, Profet, 35, an evolutionary biologist recently of the University of California at Berkeley, has, in a sense, realized her dream. She has developed a radical new theory of menstruation that may change the way women think of their bodies. In a landmark article in the September issue of The Quarterly Review of Biology, Profet takes issue with the standard explanation: that the only reason a woman bleeds each month is to discard unfertilized eggs and the uterine lining that has been building in anticipation of a baby.
Rather than view a woman’s flow as passive and a sign of loss, Profet perceives it as active and salutary. She argues that menstruation rids the uterus of pathogens—disease-causing microbes—that may be borne by sperm. Rather than merely flushing away the debris of failed fertilization, it protects the body from infection that can lead to infertility.
Doctors, however, are not rushing to abandon their traditional view of menstruation. Most maintain that susceptibility to infection actually increases alter menstruation and that menstrual blood may even act as a vehicle for transporting infection. Profet agrees, but only in the case of some infections like gonorrhea.
On the practical side of things, Profet hopes that doctors will come to sec bleeding not as a problem in itself—to be treated only with hormone therapy—but as a sign that the body is trying to help itself. “When a doctor sees a patient with a sudden heavy onset of bleeding,” she says, “he should check carefully to sec if it’s caused by an infection.”
Profet’s discoveries are the more remarkable because she is largely self-taught and never bothered getting a Ph.D. The degree, she says “is not a magic ticket.” Says her friend Donald Symons, professor of anthropology at the University of California at Santa Barbara: “Margie is an innate scientist.”
Small wonder. Profet’s parents, Karen and Bob, were both physics students at Berkeley when Margie was born. The Profets moved to Manhattan Beach in 1965. Where they worked in the aerospace industry and found time to rear four kids.
A gifted student, always three years ahead of her peers in math, Margie nevertheless remembers a fairly typical Southern California childhood. “Manhattan Beach is a real party town,” she says. “I didn’t surf, but boy, was I into the beach.” Still, she says, “I always felt like an alien, like I didn’t belong.”
At 18, she headed for Harvard, where she studied political philosophy—Plato, Nietzsche et al. “That experience changed my life,” she says. “That’s when I discovered I had a brain.” Graduating in 1980, she bummed around Europe for two years—working as a computer programmer in Munich, climbing Mount Kilimanjaro during a trip to Africa. Then she enrolled at Berkeley. By the time she graduated with a B.S. in physics in 1985, she knew what she wanted to do: “I just wanted lime to sit and think.”
Over the next eight years, Profet worked at a series of ill-paid part-time jobs so as to be free to pursue her own scholarly work. One Thursday afternoon last June. Profet gleaned a message from her answering machine that would change her life, It was a woman from the MacArthur Foundation calling to say Profet had received a so-called genius award of $225,000 over five years. “I was stunned,” says Profet.
Buoyed by her “money from the sky,” she is writing a book on pregnancy sickness for a lay audience. She has also moved from Berkeley to Seattle, exchanging a cramped studio apartment for a small but airy two-bedroom house with views of Lake Washington and Mount Rainier.
Profet plans to buy her first car and do some traveling, perhaps in East Africa. But a husband is not on the horizon. “I’m not the wifey type,” she says. “Throughout history, the really good scientists were misfits. It’s okay to be a misfit,” she muses, “as long as your science is good. I want to look back on my life and think. “I did something. I thought the best I could.’ ”
JOAN DECLAIRE in Seattle