Rita Levi-Montalchini - biography
Rita Levi-Montalcini (born 22 April 1909), Knight Grand Cross is an Italian neurologist who, together with colleague Stanley Cohen, received the 1986 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their discovery of Nerve growth factor (NGF). Since 2001, she has also served in the Italian Senate as a Senator for Life.
Today she is the oldest living Nobel laureate and the first ever to reach a 100th birthday. On 22 April 2009 she was feted with a 100th birthday party at Rome's city hall.
Born in Turin to a Jewish family, together with her twin sister Paola she was the youngest of four children. Her parents were Adamo Levi, an electrical engineer and gifted mathematician, and Adele Montalcini, a painter.
Levi-Montalcini decided to attend medical school after seeing a close family friend die of cancer, overcoming the objections of her father who believed that "a professional career would interfere with the duties of a wife and mother". She enrolled in the Turin medical school in 1930. After graduating in 1936, she went to work as Giuseppe Levi's assistant, but her academic career was cut short by Benito Mussolini's 1938 Manifesto of Race and the subsequent introduction of laws barring Jews from academic and professional careers.
During World War II, she conducted experiments from a home laboratory, studying the growth of nerve fibers in chicken embryos which laid the groundwork for much of her later research. Her first genetics laboratory was in her bedroom at her home. In 1943, her family fled south to Florence, and she set up a laboratory there also. Her family returned to Turin in 1945.
In September 1946, Levi-Montalcini accepted an invitation to Washington University in St. Louis, under the supervision of Professor Viktor Hamburger. Although the initial invitation was for one semester, she stayed for thirty years. It was there that she did her most important work: isolating the nerve growth factor (NGF) from observations of certain cancerous tissues that cause extremely rapid growth of nerve cells in 1952. She was made a Full Professor in 1958, and in 1962, established a research unit in Rome, dividing the rest of her time between there and St. Louis.
From 1961 to 1969 she directed the Research Center of Neurobiology of the CNR (Rome), and from 1969 to 1978 the Laboratory of Cellular Biology.
Rita Levi-Montalcini founded the European Brain Research Institute, covering the appointment of president. Her role in this institute was at the center of some critics from part of scientific community in 2010.
Controversies were raised by the collaboration of Prof. Montalcini with the Italian Pharmaceutical Factory Fidia. Since 1975 the scientist promoted the drug Cronassial produced by Fidia from bovine brain. The drug turned out some years later to be able to cause a severe neurological syndrome (Guillain-Barré syndrome). For this reason Germany banned Cronassial in 1983, followed by other countries. Italy prohibited the drug only in 1993. This episode raised serious critics to Rita Levi-Montalcini.
Senator for Life
On 1 August 2001 she was appointed as Senator for Life by the President of the Italian Republic, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi.
On 28–29 April 2006, Levi-Montalcini, aged 97, attended the opening assembly of the newly-elected Senate, at which the President of the Senate was elected; she declared her preference for the centre-left candidate Franco Marini. Levi-Montalcini, who is the senior member of the Upper House, chose not to be the temporary president on this occasion. She actively takes part in the Upper House discussions, unless busy in academic activities around the world. Due to her support of the government of Romano Prodi, she was often criticized by some right-wing senators, who accused her of "saving" the government when the government's exiguous majority in the Senate was at risk. She has been frequently insulted in public, and on blogs, since 2006, by both center-right senators such as Francesco Storace, and far-right bloggers for her age and Jewish origins. Levi-Montalcini is currently the oldest living and the longest-lived Nobel laureate who, though hard of hearing and nearly blind, recently vowed to remain a political force in her country.
On Sunday, 17 January 2010, she was present in Rome's main synagogue, during the official visit of pope Benedict XVI.
She had an older brother Gino, who died after a heart attack in 1974. He was one of the most well known Italian architects and a professor at the University of Turin.
She also had two sisters: Anna, five years older than Rita, and Paola, her twin sister. Paola Levi-Montalcini was a popular artist, who died in 2000.
Awards and honors
In 1968, she became the tenth woman elected to the United States National Academy of Sciences.
In 1983, she was awarded the Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize from Columbia University together with Stanley Cohen (co-winner of 1986 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine) and Viktor Hamburger.
In 1986 Levi-Montalcini and collaborator Stanley Cohen received the Nobel Prize in Medicine, as well as the Albert Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research. This made her the fourth Nobel Prize winner to come from Italy's small (less than 50,000 people) but very old Jewish community, after Emilio Segrè, Salvador Luria (a university colleague and friend) and Franco Modigliani.
In 1987, she received the National Medal of Science, the highest American scientific honor.
In 1999, Levi-Montalcini was nominated Goodwill Ambassador of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) by FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf.
In 2001 she was nominated Senator-for-life by the Italian President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi.
In 2006 Levi-Montalcini received the degree Honoris Causa in Biomedical Engineering from the Polytechnic University of Turin, in her native city.
In 2008 she received the PhD Honoris Causa from the Complutense University of Madrid, Spain.
She is a member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences.