Created on: January 02, 2013 Last Updated: January 03, 2013
Nobel Prize-winning Scientist Dr. Rita Levi-Montalcini died in Rome December 30, 2012, at the age of 103. The “Lady of the Cells” was a world-renowned biologist who continued working until her death. Noted the “Huffington Post,” Levi-Montalcini spoke of her age thus, “At 100, I have a mind that is superior - thanks to experience - than when I was 20.”
Just months before her death, the scientist had assisted in an appeal to the Italian government for more funding for young scientists and their research. Speaking of her death, Roman Mayor Gianni Alemanno said Levi-Montalcini represented the “civic conscience, culture, and spirit of research of our time.”
Awarded a “Senator-for-Life” designation in 2001, Dr. Levi-Montalcini’s death is considered not only a loss for Italy, but all of humanity.
Working in the time of Fascism
Born in 1909 to a Jewish family in Turin, Italy, Dr. Rita Levi-Montalcini nearly didn’t become a doctor because of her father’s objections to her studies. However, with persistence, her father conceded, and she went to study medicine at Turin University in 1936.
There, she studied under a top anatomist, and two of her closest friends (Renato Dulbecco and Salvador Luria) also later became Nobel Prize recipients. After school, she began working as an assistant in neurobiology but invasion of the Nazis into Italy soon put a stop to her work, as Jews were banned from both professional and university settings.
Despite the setback, Levi-Montalcini did not stop her research, instead turning her bedroom into a research lab. There, she used the development of chicken embryos to learn about the development of organs and cell growth. Due to the food hardship in Italy at the time, she would often have to ride her bicycle throughout the Italian countryside, looking for farmers who could sell her eggs.
Research and the Nobel Prize
Years later, in 1986, all the years of hardship and research would pay off. Along with American Biochemist Stanley Cohen, Dr. Rita Levi-Montalcini would win the Nobel Prize for their research into cell development and nerve growth. This would be ground-breaking work that would help in the understanding of “many conditions, including tumors, developmental malformations, and senile dementia,” according to the “Huffington Post.”
Dr. Levi-Montalcini’s work on the central nervous system continues, even after her death. Scientist Pietro Calissano (one of the pupils she mentored years earlier) noted, “'Over the years, this field of investigation has become ever more important in the world of neuroscience.” His own work on Alzheimer’s was built on a foundation of her previous discoveries, Calissano said.
She spent 20 years doing research in the United States and was a dual citizen. At the University of Washington-St. Louis, Dr. Rita Levi-Montalcini “discovered nerve growth factor, the first substance known to regulate the growth of cells.”
Her later years
She eventually returned to Italy, where she headed the National Council of Scientific Research in Rome. She also established a foundation to help support educational programs and provide scholarships, particularly for women in Africa.
Speaking of her, Mathematician Piergiorgio Odifreddi noted Levi-Montalcini was a study in contrasts: a “petite, frail woman” who had a powerful mind.
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