In a life spanning most of the 20th century, the senator- for-life was a pioneer in the medical and social fields. She carried out revolutionary experiments in a make-shift laboratory while hiding from the Nazi army in fascist Italy that contributed to her Nobel Prize for medicine. In the last decade of her life, she set up a foundation with her twin sister to give scholarships to young, talented African women.
“You’ve been thinking about something without willing to for a long time,” she once said of the discovery. “Then, all of a sudden, the problem is opened to you in a flash and you suddenly see the answer.”
Rita Levi-Montalcini was born on April 22, 1909, in Turin to Adamo Levi, a mathematician, and Adele Montalcini, a painter. Rita and her twin Paola were the youngest of four children and grew up in what she described as a “highly cultured” Jewish household with memories clouded only by her father’s opposition to his daughters’ desire to study and work.
‘Respect for Women’
“He loved us dearly and had a great respect for women, but he believed that a professional career would interfere with the duties of a wife and mother,” Levi-Montalcini wrote in a self- penned note reproduced in the book “The Nobel Prizes 1986” (Stockholm, 1987).
As a teenager she considered becoming a writer, mostly born out of her admiration for Sweden’s Selma Lagerlof, the first female author to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1909, the year Rita was born.
While her twin began to pursue painting, it wasn’t until Rita turned 20 that she discovered her scientific vocation and decided to challenge her father’s wishes. The death of a family friend of cancer helped make up her mind. Entering medical school in Turin, she studied under Giuseppe Levi, who also taught two of her colleagues and future Nobel laureates Salvador Luria and Renato Dulbecco.
“We are indebted for having learned to approach scientific problems in a most rigorous way at a time when such an approach was still unusual,” Levi-Montalcini said of her mentor in her 1988 autobiography “In Praise of Imperfection, My Life and Work.”
Rise of Fascism
Her university years coincided with the rise of fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. By the time she graduated with top marks, the so-called racial laws of the late 1930s directed against the Jewish community cut short a promising academic career begun as Levi’s assistant.
After a stint in Brussels, Rita returned to Italy soon after World War II broke out and with the Nazis on the verge of invading Belgium. Faced with the choice of staying put or moving abroad indefinitely, Rita chose to remain in her homeland.
“I then decided to build a small research unit at home and installed it in my bedroom,” Levi-Montalcini said about how she began her ground-breaking research. “The heavy bombing of Turin made it imperative to abandon Turin and move to a country cottage where I rebuilt my mini-laboratory and resumed my experiments.”
Once the Nazi army invaded Italy in 1943, Rita was forced underground and came into contact with the Resistance movement in Florence. In the closing stages of the war, she interrupted her research to work as a doctor in Allied war camps.
In 1947, she was invited to resume her experiments at the Washington University in St. Louis. What was meant to be a one- year stint instead turned into a 30-year stretch in the U.S. It was there that she carried out her research into the growth of nerve cells in the 1950s.
The Nobel Prize assembly described her work with fellow winner Stanley Cohen, as “a fascinating example of how a skilled observer can create a concept out of apparent chaos.” Both were awarded the 1986 prize for medicine.
A quarter of a century later, Levi-Montalcini was made a senator for life, a largely honorary position held by ex- presidents of the republic and a handful of other illustrious Italians.
At the age of 97, the oldest of the seven life senators, Levi-Montalcini played an unexpectedly pivotal role in domestic politics after the tightly contested April 2006 elections left Prime Minister Romano Prodi with only a one-seat majority in the upper house of parliament.
Sharp and lucid till the end, Levi-Montalcini’s long silver hair was always immaculately woven into a bun, making her instantly recognizable among the swathes of senators. Though virtually blind and hard of hearing, Levi-Montalcini was unfailing in showing up to cast critical votes that on more than one occasion saved Prodi’s ruling coalition from collapse.
The one time the government did fall short of needed votes in the Senate, Rita was in Dubai, attending a conference with fellow Nobel Prize winner Muhammad Yunus. In the end she survived the Prodi government, which fell in 2008 after less than two years in power.
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