Rita Levi-Montalcini

 

The Nobel-awarded scientist Rita Levi-Montalcini (1909-2012) is a beloved symbol of Italian excellence in the world. The prestigious award her name is often associated to was about her discovery of the NGF protein, responsible for the correct growth of the nervous system. This was the culmination of decades of research on the apoptosis phenomenon – but in a sense it also was the less-than-extraordinary consequence of solid science work. The exceptional part is what surrounded that research.

Levi-Montalcini had pursued the scientific career boldly challenging the patriarchal family and era she was born into: fighting the stereotype of becoming a housewife had required an incredible courage on her part. She was an outstanding medicine student at a time in which females were a rare sight in the scientific departments of Italian universities, then she had to escape the racial persecution against Jews between 1938 and 1945. During this time she continued her research alone, using improvised laboratory setups at each step of her flight through Italy and Europe.

Rita Levi-Montalcini continued her research and scientific career in the USA for thirty years, then she went back to Italy to support science in her home country. She held several very important positions as a teacher, as a “superexpert” (a title created just for her) at the National Research Council, as the president of the Italian Encyclopedia Institute, as a FAO ambassador, as a member of many National Science Academies – including the first female membership in the Vatican one – and in the Italian Senate.

Her outstanding career made her a powerful testimonial for countless human rights campaigns, including women’s equality, landmines banning, responsible science, support to young researchers, water access, natural resources protection and more. She also won countless scientific awards all over the world. In her later decades she half-mockingly adopted the public persona of “a Victorian grandmother”, with purposefully old-fashioned clothes to convey the irrelevance of body age compared to an active mind.