Dr. Rita Levi-Montalcini, who shared the Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology with American biochemist Stanley Cohen, comes from a family of Italian Jewish intellectuals in Turin. Now, at 77, this small, elegant, bright-eyed woman recalls first hearing the expression “freethinker” from her father, Prof. Giussepe Levi, at the age of three.
That and deeply ingrained feminism— her idol, she says, was Simone de Beauvoir—defined her life and work. But her distinguished career was also shaped by the people and events that marked the fate of the Jewish people in this century.
Her family left Italy to escape the stultifying and repressive atmosphere of Mussolini’s fascism. They lived in Belgium for a time, but when the Nazis invaded in 1940, they fled back to Italy. Because she was Jewish she was denied employment and research facilities, though she already held a Doctorate.
Because of the family’s opposition to fascism, they were forced to live clandestinely in Florence under an assumed name.
In a makeshift laboratory, set up in her bedroom, Levi-Montalcini conducted experiments secretly during the war years. She begged for eggs “for needy children” from farmers and extracted the embryos for her work. The results of her experiments went unpublished in fascist Italy because “she belonged to the Jewish race.”
Levi-Montalcini was the first woman admitted to the Pontifical Academy of Science and, in 1968, the sixth woman to gain admittance to the American Academy of Science.
Her Nobel Prize stemmed from work completed in the U.S. in 1951: discovery of NGF, a protein growth factor that stimulates nerve cell development. The discovery holds out promise that cures can be found for Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases, which attack the human nervous system.