The 30th of December 2012, Professor Rita Levi - Montalcini, member of EURASC and Leonardo da Vinci 2009 awardee, passed away.
Born in Turin on April 22, 1909, Rita Levi Montalcini was with her twin sister the youngest of four children. Her parents were Adamo Levi, an electrical engineer and gifted mathematician, and Adele Montalcini, a talented painter.
Her family had what she called, a typical Victorian style of life, all decisions being taken by the head of the family, the husband and father who believed that a professional career would interfere with the duties of a wife and mother.
However, at twenty, Rita Levi Montalcini realized that she could not possibly adjust to a feminine role as conceived by her father, and asked him permission to engage in a professional career. In eight months she filled her gaps in Latin, Greek and mathematics, graduated from high school, and entered medical school in Turin as student of the famous Italian histologist, Giuseppe Levi who learned to approach scientific problems in a most rigorous way at a time when such an approach was still unusual.
In 1936, she graduated from medical school with a summa cum laude degree in Medicine and Surgery, and enrolled in the three year specialization in neurology and psychiatry, still uncertain whether she should devote herself fully to the medical profession or pursue at the same time basic research in neurology. Her straining is shortened in 1938 by the promulgation of laws barring academic and professional careers to non-Aryan Italian citizens. Between the two alternatives left to her, either to emigrate to the United States, or to pursue some activity that needed neither support nor connection with the outside world, she decided to build a small research unit in her bedroom in Turin where she began studying the nervous system in chick embryos with Giuseppe Levi back to Turin after escaping from Belgium invaded by Nazis.
At the end of the war, she resumed her academic positions at the University of Turin and in the Fall of 1947, at the invitation from Professor Viktor Hamburger, a leading scientist in experimental neuroembryology, she joined him at the Washington University in Saint-Louis, Missouri (USA) to repeat the experiments which she had performed many years earlier in the chick embryo. Although she had planned to remain in St. Louis for only ten to twelve months, the excellent results of our research made it imperative to postpone her return to Italy. In 1956 she was offered the position of Associate Professor and in 1958 that of Full Professor, a position which she held until retirement in 1977.
It is precisely in St. Louis that in 1954 with her colleague Stanley Cohen she uncovered the nature and mechanism of action of a protein molecule which became known, on account of its biological properties, as the "Nerve Growth Factor" (NGF). It is for this discovery that in 1986 Rita Levi Montalcini and Stanley Cohen received the Nobel Prize.
This brilliant American career did not make her forget her native land. From 1961 to 1969 she directed the Research Centre of Neurobiology of the National Research Council (Rome), and founded in 2002 in Rome a European Brain Research Institute.
In addition to her scientific activities she carried on till the end, Rita Levi Montalcini had an intense social and political life. In 1999, she was nominated Goodwill Ambassador of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). In 2001, she was appointed as Senator for Life by the then President of the Italian Republic and served it until her death. Her last fight was in favor of African women through her Foundation “Onlus” so that they can receive education, professional training to enable them to have their lives in their own hands.
Rita Levi Montalcini passed away on 30 December 2012 in Rome, Italy. She was 103 years old. Her work has revolutionized the study of neuronal development. She was and remains an example of civic consciousness, culture and research spirit.
First woman president of the Italian Encyclopedia (1993-1998), Rita Levi-Montalcini was a member of the most prestigious scientific academies, such as the Italian Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Sciences in the United States and the Royal Society of London. She was a member of the European Academy of sciences where she received the Leonardo da Vinci Award 2009, during the Ceremony of Awards in Bologna.
Edgardo D. Carosella
January 11, 2013