On Sunday, December 30th, Dr. Rita Levi-Montalcini, an Italian-Jewish Nobel Prize winning neurologist who discovered critical chemical tools that the body uses to direct cell growth and build nerve networks, opening the way for the study of how those processes can go wrong in diseases like dementia and cancer, died at her home in Rome at the age of 103. Working well in to her years, she devoted several hours a day to her research even until her final days, and had been the oldest living Nobel laureate and the first ever to reach a 100th birthday.
Among her innumerable scientific and medical accomplishments, Dr. Levi-Montalcini has been lauded for the intrepid underground research that she conducted during World War II, when she personally defied Italy’s fascist anti-Semitism and a Nazi invasion.
Gianni Alemanno, the mayor of Rome, announced her death in a statement and 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.”
The youngest of four children, Rita Levi-Montalcini was born in the northern Italian town of Turin on April 22, 1909, to Adamo Levi, an engineer, and Adele Montalcini, a painter, both Italian Jews who traced their roots to the Roman Empire. In her teenage years, Levi-Montalcini considered becoming a writer and admired Swedish writer Selma Lagerlof. Her father discouraged his children from attending college as he feared it would disrupt their lives as wives and mothers but he eventually supported his daughter’s aspirations to become a doctor and financed her education. After seeing a close family friend die of stomach cancer, Levi-Montalcini decided to attend University of Turin Medical School. While in attendance there, she was taught by neurohistologist Giuseppe Levi who introduced her to the developing nervous system. After graduating summa cum laude in 1936, she went to work as Levi’s assistant, 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.
Her academic career, however, was curtailed by Italian dictator Benito Mussolini’s 1938 Manifesto of Race and the subsequent introduction of laws barring Jews from academic and professional careers. Levi-Montalcini then created a makeshift lab in her bedroom where she began studying chicken embryos in which to further her research. With eggs becoming a scarce commodity 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.”
Subsequent to the Nazi invasion in 1943, she lived underground with her family until the allied liberation. While Levi-Montalcini was engaged in this seminal research, she would later learn that it would become the groundwork for her major discovery of mechanisms that regulate growth of cells and organs. Hitherto that juncture in time, scientists had virtually no idea how embryo cells built a latticework of intricate connections to other cells.
In September 1946, Levi-Montalcini accepted an invitation to conduct extensive research at the Washington University in St. Louis, under the supervision of Professor Viktor Hamburger. Although the initial invitation was for one semester, she stayed for thirty years.
It was there that she did her most important work: in 1952, she and Dr. Stanley Cohen, (also a biochemist at Washington University) worked on isolating the nerve growth factor (NGF) from observations of certain cancerous tissues that cause extremely rapid growth of nerve cells. In the process of doing so, they altered the study of cell growth and development. Scientists soon realized that the protein gave them a new way to study and understand disorders of neural growth, like cancer, or of degeneration, like Alzheimer’s disease, and to potentially develop therapies. In the years after the discovery, Dr. Levi-Montalcini, Dr. Cohen and others described a large family of such growth-promoting agents, each of which worked to regulate the growth of specific cells. One, called epidermal growth factor and discovered by Dr. Cohen, plays a central role in breast cancer; in part by studying its behavior, scientists developed drugs to combat the abnormal growth.
Levi-Montalcini was made a Full Professor in 1958, and in 1962, established a research unit in Rome, dividing the rest of her time between there and St. Louis. From 1961 to 1969 she directed the Research Center of Neurobiology of the CNR (Rome), and from 1969 to 1978 the Laboratory of Cellular Biology. Levi-Montalcini founded the European Brain Research Institute in 2002, and then served as its president.
In 1986, Dr. Levi-Montalcini and Dr. Cohen shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology for their work. Dr. Cohen, now an emeritus professor at Vanderbilt University, said Dr. Levi-Montalcini possessed a rare combination of intuition and passion, as well as biological knowledge. “She had this feeling for what was happening biologically,” he said. “She was an intuitive observer, and she saw that something was making these nerve connections grow and was determined to find out what it was.”
Only a few months ago, Levi-Montalcini helped sponsor an appeal to the government of Italy for more attention to be paid for funding of young scientists in Italy. Italy’s premier, Mario Monti, paid tribute to Levi-Montalcini’s “charismatic and tenacious” character and for her lifelong battle to “defend the battles in which she believed.” Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi praised Levi-Montalcini’s civil and moral efforts, saying she was an “inspiring” example for Italy and the world, the ANSA news agency said. An 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. The protein assists portions of the central nervous system that have been damaged by disease or injury.“I don’t use these words easily, but her work revolutionized the study of neural development, from how we think about it to how we intervene,” said Dr. Gerald D. Fishbach, a neuroscientist and professor emeritus at Columbia.
Known in Italy as the so-called “Lady of the Cells”, Levi-Montalcini was honored by her country in 2001 when she was made a senator for life. An elegant presence, confident and passionate, she was a sought-after speaker until late in life. “At 100, I have a mind that is superior — thanks to experience — than when I was 20,” she said in 2009. She never married and had no children. In addition to her autobiography, she was the author or co-author of dozens of research studies and received numerous professional awards, including the National Medal of Science. “It is imperfection — not perfection — that is the end result of the program written into that formidably complex engine that is the human brain,” Dr. Levi-Montalcini wrote in her autobiography, “and of the influences exerted upon us by the environment and whoever takes care of us during the long years of our physical, psychological and intellectual development.”
“A beacon of life is extinguished” with her death, said a niece, Piera Levi-Montalcini, who is a city councilwoman in Turin. She told the Turin daily newspaper La Stampa that her aunt passed away peacefully “as if sleeping” after lunch and that the scientist had kept up her research studies several hours a day “right up until the end.”