Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Born this day: Rita Levi Montalcini

"If I had not been discriminated against or had not suffered persecution, I would never have received the Nobel Prize."
Rita Levi Montalcini

"At 100, I have a mind that is superior - thanks to experience - than when I was 20."
Rita Levi Montalcini



Rita Levi Montalcini, "Lady of the Cells", was born on 22nd of April 1909 in the Italian city of Turin. She graduated from medical school with summa cum laude and specialised in neurology and psychiatry when Mussolini issued the "Manifesto per la Difesa della Razza", a manifesto followed by laws barring academic careers to so-called "non-Aryan" Italians (the atheist Levi Montalcini was born to a wealthy Italian Jewish family). As she could not continue a specialised study, she decided to continue independent scientific research and built a research unit at home which she installed in her bedroom - inspired by Viktor Hamburger's article on the effects of limb extirpation in chick embryos. The heavy bombing on Turin in 1941 made her leave the city and move to a country cottage where she rebuilt her mini-laboratory. In 1943, she fled to Florence where she lived underground until the war was over and where she also worked at a refugee centre. After the war, she went back to Turin with her family.
Later, she joined Viktor Hamburger in St. Louis, was offered, the position of Associate Professor, then Full Professor. Levi Montalcini established a research unit in Rome, became the Director of the Institute of Cell Biology of the Italian National Council of Research (via) and was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1986 (via) which was the most prestigious one among the many prizes she had received. In 1992, she created the Levi-Montalcini Foundation to promote education programmes worldwide, particularly for women in Africa (via). She also became the first woman to be appointed to the board of the Enciclopedia Italiana (via). It was certainly a good idea of hers to overcome her father's initial objections to women studying.
When she passed away on 30 December 2012 at the age of 103, Italy mourned.



"A child from the age of 2 or 3 absorbs what is in the environment and what generates hatred for anyone perceived to be different."
Rita Levi Montalcini

"At 20, I realized that I could not possibly adjust to a feminine role as conceived by my father and asked him permission to engage in a professional career. In eight months I filled my gaps in Latin, Greek and mathematics, graduated from high school, and entered medical school in Turin."
Rita Levi Montalcini



"After centuries of dormancy, young women... can now look toward a future moulded by their own hands."
Rita Levi Montalcini

"I told Mother of my decision to study medicine. She encouraged me to speak to Father... I began in a roundabout way... He listened, looking at me with that serious and penetrating gaze of his that caused me such trepidation, and asked whether I knew what I wanted to do."
Rita Levi Montalcini



"My experience in childhood and adolescence of the subordinate role played by the female in a society run entirely by men had convinced me that I was not cut out to be a wife."
Rita Levi Montalcini

"I should thank Mussolini for having declared me to be of an inferior race. This led me to the joy of working, not any more, unfortunately, in university institutes but in a bedroom."
Rita Levi Montalcini



photographs of Rita Levi Montalcini (Milano, 1994) via and via and via and via and via

6 comments: