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Nobel-Winning Italian Biologist Dies at 103

Science & Tech  (tags: death, obituary, science, scientists, Rita Levi-Montalcini, biology, medicine, research, study, Nobel, Nobel Prize )

- 1998 days ago -
Rita Levi-Montalcini, an Italian biologist who conducted underground research in defiance of Fascist persecution and went on to win a Nobel Prize for helping unlock the mysteries of the cell, died at her home in Rome on Sunday.

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Michael O (176)
Sunday December 30, 2012, 8:17 pm
She was 103 and had worked well into her final years.

Rome Mayor Gianni Alemanno, announcing her death in a statement, called it a great loss "for all of humanity." He praised her as someone who represented "civic conscience, culture and the spirit of research of our time."

Italy's so-called "Lady of the Cells," a Jew who lived through anti-Semitic discrimination and the Nazi invasion, became one of her country's leading scientists and shared the Nobel medicine prize in 1986 with American biochemist Stanley Cohen for their groundbreaking research carried out in the United States. Her research increased the understanding of many conditions, including tumors, developmental malformations, and senile dementia.

Italy honoured Levi-Montalcini in 2001 by making her a senator-for-life.

A petite woman with upswept white hair, she kept an intensive work schedule well into old age. "At 100, I have a mind that is superior thanks to experience than when I was 20," she said in 2009.

Levi-Montalcini was born April 22, 1909, to a Jewish family in the northern city of Turin. At age 20 she overcame her father's objections that women should not study and obtained a degree in medicine and surgery from Turin University in 1936.

She studied under top anatomist Giuseppe Levi, whom she often credited for her own success and for that of two fellow students and close friends, Salvador Luria and Renato Dulbecco, who also became separate Nobel Prize winners. Levi and Levi-Montalcini were not related.

After graduating, Levi-Montalcini began working as a research assistant in neurobiology but lost her job in 1938 when Italy's Fascist regime passed laws barring Jews from universities and major professions. As Second World War neared, Levi-Montalcini created a makeshift lab in her bedroom where she began studying the development of chicken embryos, which would later lead to her major discovery of mechanisms that regulate growth of cells and organs.

With eggs becoming a rarity due to the war, the young scientist biked around the countryside to buy them from farmers. She was soon joined in her secret research by Levi, her university mentor, who was also Jewish and who became her assistant.

"She worked in primitive conditions," Italian astrophysicist Margherita Hack told Sky TG24 TV in a tribute to her fellow scientist. "She is really someone to be admired."

Another Italian scientist, who worked for some 40 years with Levi-Montalcini, including in the United States, said the work the Nobel laureate did on nerve growth factor was continuing. "Over the years, this field of investigation has become ever more important in the world of neuroscience, said Pietro Calissano, who began studying under Levi-Montalcini in 1965.

The 1943 German invasion of Italy forced the Levi-Montalcini family to flee to Florence and live underground. After the Allies liberated the city, she worked as a doctor at a centre for refugees.

In 1947 Levi-Montalcini was invited to the United States, where she remained for more than 20 years, which she called "the happiest and most productive" of her life. She held dual Italian-U.S. citizenship.

During her research at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, she discovered nerve growth factor, the first substance known to regulate the growth of cells.

The research increased the understanding of many conditions, including tumors, developmental malformations, and senile dementia. It also led to the discovery by Stanley Cohen of another substance, epidermal growth factor, which stimulates the proliferation of epithelial cells.

The two shared the Nobel Prize for medicine in 1986. After retiring in the late 1970s, she continued to work as a guest professor and wrote several books to popularize science.

She created the Levi-Montalcini Foundation to grant scholarships and promote educational programs worldwide, particularly for women in Africa. She then became active in Parliament, especially between 2006 and 2008, when she and other life senators would cast their votes to back the thin majority of centre-left Premier Romano Prodi.

Levi-Montalcini had no children and never married, fearing such ties would undercut her independence.

"I never had any hesitation or regrets in this sense," she said in a 2006 interview. "My life has been enriched by excellent human relations, work and interests. I have never felt lonely."


Freya H (357)
Sunday December 30, 2012, 9:28 pm
Rest in peace, Rita.

Irma Paulme (94)
Monday December 31, 2012, 8:39 am
A long life well lived! She was a brave lady.

Ruth L (32)
Monday December 31, 2012, 8:52 am
Thank you for sharing her inspiring journey ~

Fiona Ogilvie (565)
Monday December 31, 2012, 9:18 am
Thank Michael. This is an inspirational posting and such a perfect story to read on the last day of 2012. She was a blessing and used her long life in true service.

Bruno Moreira (61)
Monday December 31, 2012, 9:40 am
noted thanks!

Wendy C (109)
Monday December 31, 2012, 10:09 am
What an amazing life- beautiful to the end!

. (0)
Monday December 31, 2012, 11:29 am
I did not know of her, but what a beautiful face , and a brain to go along with it.

Mary Donnelly (47)
Monday December 31, 2012, 12:54 pm
Thanks Michael--nice to read an inspiring post.

Nancy M (169)
Monday December 31, 2012, 12:56 pm
As soon as I saw the headline, I knew who it must be. Thanks for posting.

David C (129)
Monday December 31, 2012, 8:53 pm
what a great person!

Colleen L (3)
Monday December 31, 2012, 11:52 pm
Great and very strong woman. May she Rest in Peace. Thanks Micheal

Paul Girardin (126)
Tuesday January 1, 2013, 2:23 am
Go find peace

Anita R (2)
Tuesday January 1, 2013, 2:24 am
She really deserves to be better known than she is. I hope her name and accomplishments are preserved into posterity, and that she serves as inspiration to future scientists - female scientists in particular.

reft h (66)
Tuesday January 1, 2013, 5:23 pm
She is an inspiration. it saddens me to think of how many good and talented people were killed during those awful war years, and how much they could have contributed. We have been blessed because she survived. May she rest in peace.

Tanya W (65)
Wednesday January 2, 2013, 6:27 am
Noted, What she must have seen and experienced and gave in her life time. May She Rest in Peace. Rita a job well done and a legacy left.
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