Rita Levi-Montalcini, one of the Italian women I admire most, died last Sunday at her home in Rome. She was 103. Levi-Montalcini won the Nobel Prize for medicine in 1986 for her discovery of Nerve Growth Factor, how she got there and what she did afterwards is what I find so fascinating.
Montalcini was born into a well-to-do Jewish family in Turin. Her father, Adamo Levi, was demanding and authoritarian and later she told an Italian journalist, “When I was three years old, I swear, just three years old, I decided that I would never get married and I would not have children. I was influenced by the Victorian relationship that made my mother subordinate to my father. In those days being born a woman meant having a brand of inferiority stamped onto your skin.”
Inferiority never existed for Rita-Levi Montalcini. She bucked the wishes of her father and at age 20 went to study medicine at the University of Turin, getting her degree in 1936. In 1938 the Fascist government of Benito Mussolini imposed its racial laws in Italy blocking Jews from holding positions in government, working at universities and in many other professions. Levi-Montalcini had not been slowed by her authoritarian father and she wasn’t going to be stopped by Mussolini. She quietly moved the research she was doing at the university in neurobiology into her bedroom, setting up an incubator on her radiator for studying chicken embryos. She used a microscope that later she would drag with her into the bomb shelter when the war began and Italy was bombed by the allies.
During the war, her family escaped to Florence to live in hiding, she later told an interviewer that she took the name Lupani and worked helping Jews print false documents. At the end of the war she worked as a doctor in Florence.
After the war, Levi-Montalcini went to the US, where she remained for 30 years conducting research at Washington University in St. Louis. It was there, working together with Stanley Cohen, that she discovered the Nerve Growth Factor. Their research on NGF contributed to finding medications for dementia and depression.
She once recounted to an Italian journalist that while working in a laboratory in the United States she was asked who her husband was. As she told the story, she immediately responded, “I am my own husband.”
I once briefly saw Rita Levi-Montalcini during a photo-opportunity at the US Ambassador’s residence in Rome in 1994. President Bill Clinton was in Rome and the embassy had organized an event for First Lady Hillary Clinton with a group of prominent Italian women. I remember Hillary seeming perky and over enthusiastic in a blue skirt suit (the role of First Lady was never a good fit for her), and there was petite Rita Levi-Montalcini, her elegant long silvery-gray hair pulled back into a bun, her pale blue-green eyes emanating intelligence. She was dressed with her usual refined style, outshining even a glamorous, aging Sophia Loren.
Four years ago, a cameraman friend of mine, Enrico Pergolini, shot a documentary on Levi-Montalcini when she was 99. He followed her to Israel where she gave a speech to top scientists from all over the globe. Enrico told me this tiny, elderly woman was able to captivate the audience with her incredible charisma. He said that she was losing her hearing and sight at the time, but it did not hold her back. When Levi-Montalcini turned 100 she gave an interview to a journalist from Italy’s daily “La Repubblica” in which she noted, “I am not ashamed of my two hearing aids, or of my failing eyes which force me to use a magnifying glass to read. I want to go forward. I am not tired of living and I am not looking to die.”
Levi-Montalcini was a fierce advocate for women throughout her life. My friend Enrico told me that after her speech to the scientists in Israel, she had a separate meeting with the young women scientists during which she told them they were the future and they must find the strength within them to persevere with their research. Certainly, they only had to look at her for an example of how to do so. Her tenacity and discipline in the pursuit of knowledge is hard to rival.
In 1993 Levi-Montalcini started her own foundation to give scholarship funds for research for young people around the globe.
But she was not only tough in terms of scientific research. In 2001, the Italian president made Levi-Montalcini a Senator-for-life. Most of the Senators-for-life consider it an honorary role, but Levi-Montalcini wasn’t going to waste time. In 2006-2008 she frequently cast votes to help the teetering government of then Prime Minister Romano Prodi hang on to its razor-thin majority in parliament. In 2007 Senator Francesco Storace, a former fascist and member of a right-wing party made fun of her presence in the Senate saying she was too old and he felt sorry for her. At a dinner party at that time, I listened as a pro-Berlusconi businessman said, “all we need to do is give Rita Levi-Montalcini a shove down the stairs of the Senate, and the Prodi government will fall.”
Levi-Montalcini responded to such comments were her usual graciousness backed by an iron will, noting “they slide off me like water off a duck’s wings.” Certainly a few hostile comments could never intimidate the likes of Rita Levi-Montalcini.