Dr. Rita Levi-Montalcini discovered a chemical that altered our understanding of the brain, earning her a Nobel Prize and the prestigious title of Italian “senator for life.” These accomplishments would be impressive for anyone, but considering the obstacles of Rita’s early life, her success was extraordinary.“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, in her 1988 autobiography.
For starters, being a woman in early 20th century Italy, Rita was expected to devote her young adulthood to finding a husband. Not interested in this route, Rita tactfully convinced her father that she should, instead, attend medical school—and that he should foot the bill. After earning her degree, the challenges were far from over. World War II was in full swing and non-Aryans were prohibited from publicly pursuing science (or much else, for that matter). So Rita, who was Jewish, set up a makeshift lab in her room and began the research that would earn her notoriety.
Experimenting with chick embryos, Rita discovered a substance, nerve growth-promoting factor (NGF), that facilitates the growth and health of certain nerve cells. This discovery has since led to important advancements in the treatment of such neurological and psychiatric conditions as depression and Alzheimer’s disease. As for Rita, she managed to escape age-related dementia: in 2009, she commented, “At 100, I have a mind that is superior — thanks to experience — than when I was 20.” And thanks to Rita’s genius, perhaps many more individuals will live such long and lucid lives.
Read Dr. Levi-Montalcini’s Times obituary here.