She lived a long life, left a legacy in neuroembryology, but it wasn’t easy. Consider when she was born, in 1909. Rita Levi-Montalcini was a small woman – 5-foot three (1.62 meters), but her stature in Italy and the world grew very large.
She was awarded the 1986 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine jointly with colleague Stanley Cohen for the discovery of nerve growth factor. From 2001 until her death, she also served in the Italian Senate as a Senator for Life. It was a long life – she died at 103 in 2012.
Her signature hairstyle was the side swept hair.
Love and intellect at home, racial issues at work
In her biographical notes on the Nobel Prize acceptance Levi-Montalcini says they had a good home growing up. But it was a traditional family, the girls could not learn a profession and had to go to University. This didn’t sit well with a young lady who, “could not possibly adjust to a feminine role as conceived by my father.”
After completing her high school requirements in 8 months, she asked permission to go to medical school in Torino. She was a student of the famous Italian histologist, Giuseppe Levi.
“We learned to approach scientific problems in a most rigorous way at a time when such an approach was still unusual.”
She graduated with a summa cum laude degree in Medicine and Surgery, then enrolled in the three-year specialization in neurology and psychiatry. It was the same year Mussolini issued a Manifesto signed by ten Italian scientists. Laws followed – as a non-Aryan, an academic career was not a possibility.
The egg and the chicken, research over marriage … and circumstances
The choice then was emigrating to the U.S. or pursuing some activity that needed neither support nor connection with the outside Aryan world in Torino. It was the latter. She built a small research unit in her bedroom to continue to examine the development of fibrous nerve cells.
This was an interest she cultivated while working toward her medical degree. An article by Viktor Hamburger, a German embryologist based in St. Louis, Missouri and founder of developmental neurobiology, piqued her interest.
Hamburger used chick embryos to identify a possible link between the spinal cord and the development of the nervous system. Even while operating undercover, Levi-Montalcini figured she could talk her way into a regular supply of chicken eggs.
… And the rest is history
Her persistence paid off. She started conducting her own experiments to see if she could find a link, enrolling family and banned colleagues to help. Levi-Montalcini discovered something entirely new about the growth and death of nerve cells – they followed normal development.
Since publishing in Italy was not possible at the time, she sent her papers to Swiss and Belgian journals available in America, which is where Hamburger learned about her work. After World War II he invited her to Washington University in St. Louis to discuss their overlapping interests. She accepted, and a trip of a few months turned into a twenty-six-year tenure.
In 1962, she established a research unit in Rome and split the time between the U.S. and Italy. Despite her work experience, Levi-Montalcini still believed that her biggest accomplishments were guided by intuition. “I have no particular intelligence,” she said. It wasn’t rational.
Hamburger credited talent, when he saw it, “She has a fantastic eye for those things in microscope sections… and she’s an extremely ingenious woman.” Even her mood swings were legendary.
Levity with intelligence
There were some funny moments as well. When her suitcase went missing after a flight, she gave a lecture in a pressed nightgown rather than look disheveled in front of an audience.
Once she smuggled a pair of mice on a plane to Brazil by tucking them away in her purse or pocket – for her research. She bicycled door to door during World War II, pleading with farmers for donated chicken eggs to feed her “babies” (embryonic research). She even talked her way into the copilot seat on a fully booked flight.
“The moment you stop working,” she said, “you’re dead.” Wearing a string of pearls, high heels, and a Broach under her lab coat well into old age. During the last two and a half decades of her 103 years, Italians joked that everyone would recognize the pope, as long as he appeared with Rita Levi-Montalcini.
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• In Praise of Imperfection: My Life and Work, Rita Levi-Montalcini