Friday, January 13, 2017

A Brilliant Mind

In an era when most young women were encouraged to find a proper husband, Rita Levi-Montalcini (a combination of the last names of her father and mother) dreamed of a career in medicine. Her choice of medicine stemmed from witnessing the death of someone close to her from stomach cancer. After her father, a firm believer that too much education was not good for women, finally acquiesced, Levi-Montalcini gave herself a crash course in all the things she hadn’t learned at her girls high school.

Levi-Montalcini was not certain if she wanted to go into practical medicine or medical research when she entered the University of Turin Medical School in Italy in the early 1930s. She graduated summa cum laude with degrees in medicine and surgery in 1936 and then began studying neurology and psychology.

Unfortunately, the fact that she was a Jew soon forced her to choose research, and much of the research that she did was performed in an at-home lab. In 1938, race laws implemented by Mussolini’s fascist government barred Jews from academic and professional careers.

Levi-Montalcini went to Brussels to continue her studies, but returned shortly thereafter when German forces began moving toward Belgium. Since she could not get a professional position, Levi-Montalcini set up a laboratory in her bedroom and began doing research on chick embryos and the development of the nervous system. She was joined by her former teacher Giuseppe Levi.

In 1941, Levi-Montalcini and her family (parents and twin sister) fled Turin and went to the countryside near Florence, where they lived in hiding. During this time, Levi-Montalcini would get fertilized eggs from local farmers for her research.

After the war, Levi-Montalcini published her findings, which drew the attention of Viktor Hamburger who invited her to do research at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. This turned into an associate professorship and then a full professorship. During this time she continued her research on nerve development. Beginning in the 1960s, Levi-Montalcini split her time between St. Louis and Rome.

In 1986, Levi-Montalcini received a Nobel Prize in Physiology/Medicine along with her co-researcher Stanley Cohen. She returned to Italy full time after retirement and continued to do research and create institutions for further scientific discoveries.

Levi-Montalcini passed away on December 30, 2012 (17 Tevet)  at age 103.

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