There are many courageous women who have made Italian history great and, among these, one cannot fail to place the extraordinary Rita Levi Montalcini. A woman who has always pushed herself beyond customs and conventions, and who is imprinted in my memory as a person with wrinkles that concealed experience and lively and curious eyes. April 22 would have been her birthday, let's remember it together.
Rita Levi Montalcini: biography
Rita Levi Montalcini was born in Turin on April 22, 1909, together with her twin sister, Paola. Both parents, very cultured, always pushed their children towards study, culture and continuous intellectual research. However, they always kept a strict one Victorian education founded on the distinction between female and male roles. Despite her father's belief that a professional career would interfere with the duties of a wife and mother, Montalcini enrolled in the medical school of the University of Turin in 1930. Here he began to devote himself to the study of the nervous system, graduated with honors in 1936 and specialized in neurology and psychiatrists
The racial laws
Her life was shaken by the enactment of the racial laws which, in 1938, led her to emigrate to Belgium with her teacher Giuseppe Levi. At the Institute of Neurology of the University of Brussels he had the opportunity to continue his studies on the differentiation mechanisms of the nervous system. Two years later he returned to Turin, continued his research in a private laboratory and managed to escape deportations by hiding in Florence as well. During this period he made contact with the partisan forces and worked as a doctor in the service of the Allied Forces.
When the war ended in 1945, leaving behind millions of deaths and great devastation, Rita Levi Montalcini returned to her hometown and resumed her studies and experiments in a small home laboratory.
The experience between America and Brazil and the Nobel
In 1947 he accepted a post at the Washington University in St. Louis (Missouri) at the Department of Zoology chaired at the time by the neuro-embryologist Viktor Hamburger. Assignment that should have been temporary but which actually lasted over 30 years and also took her to New York and Brazil. The work between the United States and Rio de Janeiro allowed her to carry out the experiments necessary for the identification of the neuronal growth factor (Nerve Growth Factor, NGF), which was found to play an essential role in the growth and differentiation of sensory and sympathetic nerve cells.
In 1953, together with the young biochemist Stanley Cohenusing the in vitro system she herself devised, she carried out the first biochemical characterization of the growth factor. In 1986, this great scientific breakthrough won both of them the Nobel Prize for Medicine. The prestigious award was awarded to her with the following motivation:
“The discovery of the NGF in the early 50s is a fascinating example of how a keen observer can extract valid hypotheses from apparent chaos. Previously, neurobiologists had no idea what processes were involved in the correct innervation of the organs and tissues of the body. "
The return to Italy and the evolution of the NGF discovery
While living in the United States, he also worked for Italy by cooperating with the National Institute of Health, the FAO and with numerous scientific societies. From 1961 to 1969 he directed the Neurobiology Research Center created by the National Research Council of Rome, in collaboration with the Institute of Biology of Washington University. In 1969 he moved permanently to Italy and until 1979 took on the role of director of the Institute of Cell Biology of the National Research Center (CNR) in Rome. Retired due to age limits, however, she continued her studies becoming a Guest Professor. From 1989 to 1995 he worked as Super Expert at the CNR Institute of Neurobiology, deepening his research on the NGF spectrum of action.
The investigations thus conducted from 1961 to 1995, thanks to increasingly sophisticated equipment and techniques, allowed her to understand that the neuronal growth factor it actually has a much wider activity than initially imagined. L'Ngf, in fact, it is not limited to sensory and sympathetic nerve cells, but also extends:
- to the cells of the central nervous system,
- of the hematopoietic immune system
- and to the cells involved in neuroendocrine functions.
“We have found that NGF (Nerve Growth Factor) is much more than a protein molecule. Without it, life stops. In mice, it blocks the progression of Alzheimer's. "
Rita Levi Montalcini
His public commitment
The commitment in the humanitarian and social field of Rita Levi Montalcini was impressive. In addition to the campaigns against anti-personnel mines and for the responsibility of scientists towards society, we remember:
- the creation of the Rita Levi-Montalcini Onlus Foundation together with his sister Paola, which took place in 1992 with the aim of financing scholarships to support the education of African women;
- the establishment of the Italian section of the Green Cross International, in 1998, recognized by the United Nations and committed to the prevention of conflicts related to the exploitation of natural resources;
- the appointment a senator for life in 2001 "for having illustrated the homeland with very high merits in the scientific and social field";
- the birth in 2002 in Italy of theEuropean Brain Research Institute (EBRI), an international research institute dedicated exclusively to brain research.
Rita Levi Montalcini died in Rome on December 30 2012 at the extraordinary age of 103 years.
The next day the funeral home was set up in the Senate and then the body was transferred to Turin, where a short private ceremony with a Jewish rite was celebrated. On January 2, 2013, the funeral took place in public form. The body was cremated and his ashes were buried in the family tomb in the Monumental Cemetery of Turin.
“Everything has been easy for me in life. Difficulties have been shaken off me, like water on a duck's wings. "
Rita Levi Montalcini