[ASC-list] Obituary:Rita Levi Montalcini

Rob Morrison rob.morrison at flinders.edu.au
Thu Jan 10 04:44:13 UTC 2013


ASCers may be interested in the following obit. Marcello Costa (author) is a former winner of the Unsung Hero of SA Science Communication

Dr Rob Morrison
rob.morrison at flinders.edu.au
Phone: (08) 8339 3790
Fax: (08)8339 6272
________________________________
Obituary of Rita Levi Montalcini (22 April 1909 – 30 December 2012)
Marcello Costa 31/12/12
Rita Levi Montalcini, the oldest Nobel prize–winner, died peacefully at 01:03 on 30 December 2012 in Rome, after a life dedicated to science and humanity. Rita studied in Turin, a beautiful city surrounded by hills and mountains.  She studied at the University of Turin in the Department of Anatomy in the 1930s.  I was privileged, when I was an intern research medical student in Turin, to be seated at the desk Rita had used.
Rita was born in Turin. Both parents were highly cultured and instilled in her and her two sisters their appreciation of intellectual pursuit. Her father loved them dearly and had a great respect for women, but he believed that a professional career would interfere with the duties of a wife and mother. Rita stuck with her decision to become a scientist and become a student intern in Anatomy during her studies in Medicine.
At the time, Giuseppe Levi was the professor of Anatomy. A rather stern man, his rigor and mentoring skills also attracted two other medical students as interns, Salvador Luria and Renato Dulbecco.  Both close friends of Rita’s, they won Nobel prizes in Medicine before she did. In 1936, Rita graduated from medical school. In the same year, Mussolini issued the infamous "Manifesto per la Difesa della Razza", the racial laws, signed by ten Italian 'scientists'. Both Rita and her supervisor, Professor Levi, were Jewish. Prof Levi was ousted from his academic position. His three students, future Nobelists, became antifascists.
With the war and the alliance of Mussolini’s Fascist government with German Nazism, Rita hid in her family house near Turin.  She built a small research unit in her bedroom, where she continued her research on the chemical factors that make the brain grow. After the war, she received an invitation from Professor Viktor Hamburger to join him at Washington University, St Louis, USA, and to repeat the experiments which she had performed many years earlier in the chick embryo.  This was to change the course of her life.
Rita Levi Montalcini received the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1986 for her discovery of nerve growth factor (NGF). Her discovery opened the field of ‘brain plasticity’ in neuroscience – the study of the inner workings of the brain and its ongoing interaction with the external world. The promise of this 21st century science in preventing and healing the brain and its mental diseases is one of her legacies.
In 1962, Rita returned half-time to Italy, where she was made ‘Life Senator of the Italian Republic’ and where she fostered activities such as “Women in Science in Africa”.  She was a passionate participant in the difficult debate on living wills, based on secular values, giving the right to individuals on how to terminate their lives. Her message is that science flourishes only when all members of a society can participate in the adventure of scientific discoveries.  This can happen only in secular-based democracies.
Rita Levi Montalcini represents the best of the Italy the world has learned to love. She will be missed by all lovers of science and civilisation.
Marcello Costa, FAA
Matthew Flinders Distinguished Professor and Professor of Neurophysiology,
Department of Physiology
Flinders University
Email: Marcello.costa at flinders.edu.au<mailto:Marcello.costa at flinders.edu.au>
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