Rita Levi-Montalcini: a great woman behind the great scientist
Saying goodbye to the students of the University of Turin she said:
“Don’t think about yourself, think about others. Think about the future that awaits you, think
about what you can do and fear nothing”.
Her willpower and tenacity made her a great woman before being a great scientist.
Rita Levi-Montalcini was born in Turin in April 1909 into a Sephardic Jewish family. Her father was an engineer and her mother was a painter. She was born with a twin, Paola, also a painter and had another brother and sister.
The highly educated parents instilled an appreciation for intellectual research and cultural curiosity in their children. She spent her childhood and adolescence in a serene environment, although dominated by a Victorian conception of relations between parents and children, male and female, often undergoing the strong personality of the father who was convinced that a professional career could interfere with the duties of a wife and a mother. Despite her father’s opinion, in the autumn of 1930, she decided to study medicine at the University of Turin. At 21 she entered the Medical School of Histology where she began studying the nervous system. She had two future Nobel Prizes as university friends: Salvador Luria and Renato Dulbecco. All three were students of Professor Giuseppe Levi, director of the School of Histology and father of the writer Natalia Ginzburg, a leading figure in Italian literature of the twentieth century.
In 1936, Rita graduated in Medicine and Surgery with 110 cum laude and specialized in Neurology and Psychiatry.
Following 1938’s racial laws, she was forced to emigrate to Belgium with Professor Giuseppe Levi and until 1940 they were guests at the Institute of Neurology at the University of Brussels, where she continued her studies on the differentiation of the nervous system. When the Germans invaded Belgium, Rita and her professor returned to Turin and, unable to attend university, she set up a scientific laboratory in her bedroom in order to continue her research. Her goal was to understand the role of genetic and environmental factors in the differentiation of nerve centres.
The heavy bombing of Turin and the work of the Anglo-American air forces in 1941 forced Montalcini to abandon the city and seek refuge in the province of Asti, where she rebuilt his mini laboratory and resumed the experiments.
In 1943 the invasion of Italy by the German armed forces, forced her to abandon this refuge and, after a dangerous journey with his brother and sisters, she settled in Florence. The Levi-Montalcini’s family survived the holocaust by remaining hidden in Florence, divided into various lodgings, until the liberation of the city, often changing homes to avoid deportation. During the period of the Nazi occupation, Rita came into contact with the Partisan forces of the Action Party.
After the war she returned with her family to Turin where he resumed her academic studies and set up a new makeshift laboratory.
With the teacher Giuseppe Levi she began to do research on chicken embryos, achieving different results published in international scientific journals.
In 1947 the biologist Viktor Hamburger, to whom Rita was inspired for many of his works, invited her to Saint Luigi to take the professorship of the Neurobiology course at Washington University.
In 1951, at the New York Academy of Sciences, she presented her thesis that sought to explain the differentiation of neurons and the existence of factors released by other cells capable of controlling this differentiation.
In 1954, continuing her in vitro analysis, she came to the isolation of a protein that is synthesized by almost all tissues and which, designated as Nerve Growth Factor (NGF), proved to be active on the differentiation of certain neurons in the brain. This research has been of fundamental importance for the understanding of cell and organ growth and plays a significant role in understanding the spread of cancer and diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. For about 30 years she researched the NGF and its mechanism of action and in 1986, thanks to her studies, she received the Nobel Prize for medicine. The scientist donated part of the prize to the Jewish community for the construction of a new synagogue in Rome and in 1987 she received the National Medal of Science from President Ronald Regan, the highest honour in the American scientific world. Often active in campaigns of social and political interests, such as that against anti-personnel mines, in 1992 she established with her sister Paola “Rita Levi-Montalcini Foundation”, in memory of their father, aimed at training young people and at the awarding of university scholarships to young African female students. She has been a member of major international scientific academies such as the Accademia dei Lincei and, in 2001 she was appointed senator for life.
She died in Rome on December 30th 2012, at the age of 103.
Rita Levi-Montalcini has renounced her husband and family by choice to devote herself entirely to science and the promotion of freedom of thought.