Sunday, December 30, 2012


Today saw the passing of a very great Italian lady and heroine of mine: Rita Levi-Montalcini, Italy's "first lady of science", Nobel laureate, Senator for Life and Cavaliere di Gran Croce [Knight Grand Cross, the highest honour of the Italian Republic] passed away peacefully, at the age of 103, at her home in Rome.  I've written about her several times on this blog, including in this review of one of the most informative books I've read about her. What follows is an edited version of that post:

Born in Turin to a Sephardic Jewish family, Rita Levi-Montalcini decided early on that she wanted to go to medical school. She overcame her father's opposition, which was based on a traditional view of a woman's role, and graduated from the Turin Medical School in 1936 - just in time to be barred from her professional work by the Mussolini government.

Undaunted, she set up a laboratory in her home and in 1943 she fled, with her family, to Florence, where she set up a second laboratory. She returned to Turin in 1945 and was invited to work at the Washington University in St Louis, where she was made a full Professor in 1958. She returned to work in Rome in 1961. In 1986 she received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for her work with Stanley Cohen on nerve growth factor.

In 2009 she told a Times interviewer that she had never married because she had not wanted to be "dominated" in the way that her mother was and that she puts her longevity down to getting up at 5 am, working hard to keep her brain active and eating only one meal a day, at lunchtime.

In La clessidra della vita di Rita Levi-Montalcini by Giuseppina Tripodi with Rita Levi-Montalcini we learn that this modest lady attributes her success in scientific research to trusting her intuition and knowing her limits. Never afraid to speak her mind or to change it, in 1998 Rita Levi-Montalcini called upon the UN to liberalise drug use in order to free young people from what she calls the "drug war" . She now believes, though, that the use of soft drugs can lead to dependence on hard ones and has thus modified her view. She remains interested and concerned about the problems of the young, believing that much unhappiness arises from wrong choices made during adolescence.

She also writes that genocide, violence and war are not the result of man's natural aggression but of our blind obedience to those in power. She champions a new Charter of Human Rights for all states and in this the banning of the atomic bomb and further weapons of destruction of any kind, plus a commitment to improving the quality of life everywhere, rather than only in certain areas, would be fundamental.

Rita Levi-Montalcini enjoyed a special bond with young people and had revolutionary views on education which any incoming Minister of Education in Italy would do well to read. She was living proof of her own assertions that in old age the brain, in contrast to the muscles, heart, lungs and limbs, can continue to function well and that life should be faced with humility and courage.  She believed that,

"The most refined and extraordinary instrument we have at our disposal is the mind."

Thank you, Rita, for inspiring so many Italians and others around the world, including at least one Welshwoman.

Rita Levi-Montalcini depicted in flowers at the Noto Infiorata, 2011


jams o donnell said...

She was a true great

Rosaria Williams said...

A true heroine!
Glad to know about her.
Buon Capodanno, Pat.

Whispering Walls said...

Happy New Year WL!

Welshcakes Limoncello said...

She was indeed, jams. Hi, Rosaria. Yes, she was and Italy needs more like her. Buon anno a te. And buon anno a te, WW.


View My Stats