ROME – Rita Levi-Montalcini, the Italian Nobel Prize winning biologist died on Sunday, December 30 in her home in Rome at the age of 103. At the time of her death, Levi-Montalcini was the oldest living Nobel laureate. She was an “inspiring” example for Italy and the world.
The entire country as well as the international academic community paid their last respects to the Italian scientist who was buried in Turin. Italy’s so-called “Lady of the Cells,” a Jew who lived through anti-Semitic discrimination and the Nazi invasion, became one of the world’s leading scientists and shared the Nobel medicine prize in 1986 with American biochemist Stanley Cohen for their discovery of the Nerve Growth Factor (NGF) in the peripheral nervous system.
She was born in Turin on April 22, 1909 and obtained a summa cum laude degree in medicine and surgery from the city university in 1936, despite her father’s objection to women studying.
Two of her university colleagues and close friends were Salvador Luria and Renato Dulbecco, who were later to receive the Nobel prizes in physiology and medicine, respectively.
After specialising in neurology and psychiatry she began to work as a university assistant but, in 1938, was forced by Fascist persecution laws to leave her job.
However, she continued her research from her home, creating a makeshift lab in her bedroom where she studied the development of chicken embryos.
With eggs becoming a rarity due to the war, the young scientist biked around the countryside to buy them from farmers.
“She worked in primitive conditions. She is really someone to be admired,” Italian astrophysicist Margherita Hack said.
She spent more than 20 years in the U.S., working primarily at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, which she called “the happiest and most productive” of her life. She held dual Italian-U.S. citizenship.
A petite and frail woman with upswept white hair and an incredible mind, she never stopped working, carrying out important researches into her final years.
“At 100, I have a mind that is superior – thanks to experience – than when I was 20,” she said in 2009. She would sleep no more than two or three hours a night because “I have no time to lose”.
“She went out like a beacon extinguishes”, Piera Levi-Montalcini, niece and a Turin city councilwoman said. Her niece told Turin daily La Stampa, that the ever-dedicated biologist “kept up her research studies several hours a day right up until the end”.
In 2001 Levi-Montalcini was made a senator for life, one of the country’s highest honors. She then became very active in Parliament advocating for the conditions of young researchers.
Montalcini received a prize for promoting Italy’s entrepreneurial spirit abroad in 2010 and as a staunch advocate of stopping the country’s brain drain, founded the EBRI research lab.
“In life you should never give up your hope, never surrender to mediocrity. Get off that grey zone in which everything is resignation and routine and have the courage to rise up and feed your hopes,” she wrote in one of her books.