In 1909 Rita Levi-Montalcini was born, near the alps in the city of Turin, Italy. Her father, Adamo Levi was an electrical engineer, and her mother, Adele Montalcini was an artist. When she was younger, Rita wanted to be an author, or maybe a philosopher- only, she didn’t have the logical mind for that.
Her childhood was, by some regards, a wonderful one, with her parents raising their children to have strong values and an appreciation for culture and the people around them. While they were descended from Sephardic Jews, the children weren’t raised religious, but instead raised to place value on their rich cultural heritage and faith. But equally, it was a suffocating one: Her father was an iron-willed man, sometimes with an explosive temper, and his wife always stood second to him. The patriarchal upbringing left Rita a shy child, and her apprehension of her father transferred to most adults in her life. But just as equally, it grew some iron in her: she swore to herself she would never marry, refusing to be inferior to anyone, and developed a resilient streak which would serve her well throughout her life.
Then her dear governess developed a stomach tumour and Rita decided to go into medicine. After two years she convinced her father, as well, despite his insistence that studying medicine would prevent her from fulfilling her womanly duties. She promised her governess she would make her better, and in eight months studied all the Greek, Latin, and Mathematics her all-girls school career missed. She passed the entrance exam to the Turin School of Medicine and became one of six girls studying there in a class of 300 students at age 21.
Her governess died before this.
The unrelated Giuseppe Levi quickly caught onto Rita’s intelligence; he was an eccentric but brilliant professor, who taught two other Nobel Peace Prize winners. Under his guidance Rita overcame the prejudice she faced and graduated the school with summa cum laude degree in medicine and surgery. After, she returned as an intern to the Institute of Anatomy where she continued to work with Giuseppe.
Like him, she was interested in the nervous system, and had become adept at Histology, or staining nerve cells. He gave her the task of investigating the formation of the convolutions of the human brain. She would later describe this as an impossible task: To investigate these convolutions you would need human brains at various stages of development, and this is Italy during the 1930s. Abortion was illegal in Italy. Where would you find the embryos?
With Giuseppe’s permission she abandoned the project and started researching the development of the nervous system. But before she could make any progress, it was 1938, and Mussolini’s "Manifesto per la Difesa della Razza" (Manifesto for the Defence of Race) was enacted. This barred any non-Aryan citizens from academic and professional careers.
Rita didn’t wish to put her Catholic peers in danger by remaining at the Institute. Briefly, she accepted an invitation to a Belgium neurological institute, but feared for her family and returned to Turin- just as Mussolini shook hands with Hitler.
The Levi-Montalcini’s didn’t flee Italy, despite Mussolini’s army the Blackshirts, the round-ups and shootings, and the constant, bone-numbing fear-
With her older brother Gino Levi-Montalcini’s help she set up a make shift laboratory in her bedroom in Turin to continue her work; when the bombs fell on Turin and the family fled to the country side this laboratory moved to the communal living space.
She would go around the farmers and share the story of her poor, hungry and scared children, which were also imaginary, so she could beg one or two of their fertilized chicken eggs off them. She had saved up for a stereomicroscope and a binocular Zeiss microscope, but for the microscalpels she filed down spare sewing needles, making do with what she had.
She worked throughout the entirety of the war years. The established theory, proposed by Viktor Hamburger, suggested that there was a factor present in limbs which caused the nerve cells to grow into the limbs. If, early in embryonic development you removed the buds which would grow into limbs, nothing would call the nerve cells away from the spine, and so they would cluster there unspecialized.
But Rita, instead, thought it was a nutrient produced by the limbs which preserved the differentiated nerve cells, and that without the limb and it’s nutrient, these specialized nerve cells died. The limb held no responsibility for their specialization in the first place.
The family had moved down to Florence near the end of the war, and in September 1944 the Ally Forces liberated it from Nazi rule. Secretly, the Levi-Montalcinis had been assisting the Italian resistance, and now Rita volunteered her knowledge of medicine to become a volunteer doctor.
She left as soon as she could though, returning to Turin in 1945.
(The forces and their citizens were plagued by malnutrition and typhoid; as we have seen, she was a resilient woman, but seeing all those old people, soldiers, and babies dying-)
This would be the last time as a practising doctor.
Rita was unsure how she would continue with her research after the war, but some of her work pre-war had made its way into scientific journals. Viktor Hamburger had learned of this peculiar woman; He invited her to the University of Washington, with the intention of seeing who was right.
The post was, in theory, for only a few months, and Viktor and Rita- they couldn’t be more different. While Hamburger was a methodical and slow scientist, Rita was a passionate one, powered by a creative and intuitive mind. She would remain there for 30 years, until 1977, and become a full professor.
She didn’t abandon Italy though; her new position gave her the power to set up a second research centre in Rome, and she became director of both the Research Centre of Neurobiology of the CNR in Rome and the Laboratory of Cellular Biology.
Her passion still lay with those chicken nerve cells, though. She had convinced Viktor, but she continued working on isolating this nutrient. Initially working with a strain of tumour cells found in mice, she transferred these to some chicken embryos and observed the rapid differentiation of nerve cells and generation of nerve fibres it caused. Working with a biochemist Stanley Cohen, she narrowed down the growth factor to a nucleic acid and a protein; using a snake venom with enzymes which broke down those compounds led to the surprising discovery that this nutrient was present in many animals; they also found it produced in the salivary glands of mice.
Together they had isolated the Nerve Growth Factor- one instrumental in the development of nerve cells, and so also, cancer cells. It could also, possibly, be used to regenerate severed or damaged nerves. She and Cohen won a Nobel Peace Prize for this discovery in 1986; When the phone rang to tell her of this news, she was reading Agatha Christie’s Evil under the Sun. Still, on the second-last page of that book, there is a pencil-scrawled message saying, “call from Stockholm”, because immediately she had returned to reading.
She didn’t thrive under the fame the prize won, but she realised it would provide her the opportunity to become involved in matters of importance to her. When appointed to Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations she devoted herself to speaking out about hunger across the world; She would travel across schools in Italy to deliver speeches describing hope and faith. In August 2001, at the age of 92, she was appointed as a Senator of Life by the Italian president, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi.
Her life was not without controversy, of course. The Former health minister Duilio Poggiolini suggested in 1994 that her Nobel Peace Prize had been bought by Fidia, a company she had worked with previously. He had recently been accused of corruption. Instead of responding with vitriol, she said: “The allegations against Fidia cannot be true. The process for awarding Nobel prizes is so complex that it cannot be corrupted.”
I think, sweetest for me, was her fight for women’s opportunities. As well as numerous articles, she wrote a paper called "The Feminine Awakening", which described the history of women's emancipation movement, from the early 1800s to her present day in the 70s; her understanding of gender dynamics was a modern one often lacking even today: in her book In Praise of Imperfection she wrote: "The subordinate role played by the female in a society run entirely by men made the status of a wife less than attractive.”
And in 2001 she established the Fondazione Rita Levi-Montalcini, a non-profit organisation with the intention of providing education for girls and women in Africa, because when reflecting on her life she realised she would not have achieved what she did if not for her opportunity to study in university. And she wished that opportunity for every woman in the world.
As of 2009, the foundation had funded 7,000 girls. She said, perhaps proudly: “Young women … can now look toward a future moulded by their own hands.”
She’d live past her siblings, her twin sister, and most people her generation, becoming a centenarian in 2009. Even in her old age she remained attentive and bright, dressing elegantly, holding interviews, and attending conferences. She woke up at five each morning and slept at 11. At 100 she was still making new discoveries about the Nerve Growth Factor.
She died in the 30th December 2012. She lived long enough to make you wonder if perhaps, amongst those nerve cells and egg shell, she found the secret to immortality. But, she didn’t fear death.
“I am indifferent to my own death, that only affects my body. What will remain of me is what I have achieved, the work I have done during my lifetime. You don’t die at the time of your physical death. Your message lives on. I am not in the least frightened of dying, it will only affect this very small body that I have lived in. It is not important when I die. The important thing is to have lived with serenity using the rational left-hand side of one’s brain, and not the right side, the instinctive side, which leads to misery and tragedy.”
Perhaps it was an active life, or a Mediterranean diet. If you are a romantic sort, you might wonder if it’s a kind of karma; After all, can you think of many people who’ve contributed as much to life as she did?