In a society too often focused on vapid celebrities and icons, finding a truly intelligent role model can be difficult and now that Nobel prizewinning scientist Rita Levi-Montalcini is no more with us it will be even harder. Levi-Montalcini died last Sunday in her house in Rome at 103.
Born in Turin in 1909 to mathematician Adamo Levi and painter Adele Montalcini, she decided very early in her life she wouldn't have married to avoid being subjected to her partner's decisions and be completely independent in her choices.
Against her father's will (she often stated in interviews she came from a “Victorian family”), Levi-Montalcini decided to study and obtained a degree in medicine and surgery from Turin University in 1936. Soon she found herself facing new challenges, from overcoming sexism in medicine and in life to overcoming antisemitism and fascism during the Second World War.
In 1938, when fascist legislation banned "non-Aryans" from university posts and from practising medicine she recreated her own laboratory at home and started studying normal and abnormal neural development in chick embryos. Italian histologist Giuseppe Levi, her lecturer at Turin University, joined her in this research that continued in a cottage outside Turin when air-raids drove them out of the city. After the liberation Levi-Montalcini was hired by the allies and worked as a doctor at refugee camps, going back to Turin University once the war was over.
In the meantime, her researches with Giuseppe Levi had been published in journals and, in 1946, American scientist Viktor Hamburger who had carried out experiments on chick embryos, asked her to join him at Washington University in St Louis where she remained for 30 years.
In 1952 she started a collaboration with biochemist Stanley Cohen to analyse a specific chemical, the protein called nerve growth factor, the first substance known to regulate cell growth and the way it could communicate. While her research prompted Cohen to discover also another substance, the epidermal growth factor, her work proved revolutionary in embryology and facilitated the understanding of many conditions, including tumours, developmental malformations and senile dementia.
In the early '60s Levi-Montalcini established a research unit in Rome, dividing her time between Italy and the USA and, from 1969 to 1978, she became director of the institute of cell biology at the National Council of Research in Rome. After retiring in the late 1970s, she continued to work, wrote several books and created the Levi-Montalcini Foundation to grant scholarships and promote education programmes all over the world and in particular in Africa.
In 1986 she was the joint winner with Cohen of the Nobel prize for physiology and medicine. For the awarding ceremony she opted for a classic and rather conservative dark velvet dress by Roberto Capucci that entered fashion history.
Apart from being admired for her scientific achievements and pioneering researches, Levi-Montacini was loved in Italy for her culture, spirit of research, support to female scientists and fights against prejudices and discrimination.
A symbol of integrity and equanimity who always supported young people, she was made senator for life in Italy in 2001.
In an appearance on Italian TV when she was 96, she explained she managed to overcome the discrimination she encountered by not allowing what was going on around her to influence or distract her from her goals.
Rather than giving up her studies, she kept on working and researching until last Saturday as her niece Piera Levi-Montalcini, a city councillor in Turin, told the Italian press. Her imagination and curiosity for discovery grew as she got older, as she stated a while back in an interview "I'm the mind, let the body act as it will".Member of the Boxxet Network of Blogs, Videos and Photos
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