STEM Saturdays: Rita Levi-Montalcini and science under siege
Nobel prize-winning neurobiologist Rita Levi-Montalcini resolved to blaze a path in medicine while she and her twin sister, Paola, grieved their beloved governess after she succumbed to cancer. Born in Turin, Italy in 1909, Rita learned early to defend her aspirations from doubt and disapproval: her wealthy Jewish family, and especially her father, were strongly opposed to the idea of their daughter becoming a doctor. But when Rita insisted that she had no plans to marry, her exasperated parents consented to send her to medical school. She graduated summa cum laude in 1936.
Two years later, while Dr. Levi-Montalcini was working on a specialization in neurology and psychiatry, Mussolini issued an edict that forbade Jews and other non-Aryans from work in Italian universities. The Levi-Montalcini family was forced to retreat to their home in Turin and then to the countryside, where Rita built a small laboratory in her bedroom in order to study the growth patterns of nerve cells in chicken embryos. Her work in hiding was her first clue to the existence of neurotropic growth factors, the isolation of which would later earn her a Nobel Prize.
Dr. Levi-Montalcini passed away in 2012 at the age of 103 as the longest-lived Nobel winner on record. She spent her final years in Rome with Paola, an accomplished painter, and was an energetic promoter of the arts and sciences until her final days. She never married.