Sunday, 30 December 2012

Senator Dr. Rita Levi-Montalcini, 1909-2012

The Mayor or Sindaco of Rome announced today that Italian Senator Dr. Rita Levi-Montalcini had died. She was the Nobel Prize winner in Physiology and Medicine in 1986 for her research work. She was a developmental biologist. Her discovery with Dr. Cohen of the University of Washington in St-Louis, USA, of nerve growth factor (NGF) and epidermal growth factor (EGF), respectively, demonstrated how the growth and differentiation of a cell is regulated. NGF and EGF were the first of many growth-regulating signal substances to be discovered and characterized.

This discovery opened new fields of importance in basic science. As a consequence our understanding of many disease states such as developmental malformations, degenerative changes in senile dementia, delayed wound healing and tumour diseases.

Dr. Gerald D.Fishbach, a neuroscientist and professor Emeritus at Columbia said her work had revolutionized the study of neural developmental, from how we think about it and to how we intervene.
Previously scientists had virtually no idea how embryo cells built a latticework of intricate connections to other cells when Dr. Levi-Montalcini began studying chicken embryos in the bedroom of her house in Turin, Italy, during World War II. After years of obsessive study, much of it with Dr. Viktor Hamburger, she found a protein that, when released by cells, attracted nerve growth from nearby developing cells.

She was born in Turin in Northern Italy and graduated in Medicine from the University of Turin in 1936 with honours, Summa Cum Laude. Her father Adamo Levi was an engineer and a known mathematician and her mother was a painter. She convinced her father that she should continue and study medicine, not a fashionable idea in 1930 Italy. Her other sisters either married or pursue other paths, her brother was a well known architect.

I remember her from our time in Rome, she was truly an impressive women, despite being 100 years old. She had said at a conference that her mind was much better at 100 than at 20 because of all the life experience and knowledge she now had.
She never married and did not have children. She devoted her life to study and research. The Italian Republic bestowed on her the title of Senator for life in 2001in recognition of her incredible work.

She was an example to many Italian women of what a person can achieve in their lifetime, despite obstacles and she had quite a few during her life, her family were Jewish and survived after 1936 by moving south from Turin and then to Florence and the countryside. All the while she continued her research. Truly an amazing life story, a women who succeeded not because she had some kind of mandated entitlement but solely on Merit. That in itself is very attractive, the idea of Merit instead of entitlement, quotas or reverse discrimination. An example for our time, especially here in Canada, where people much prefer to scream for what they have been led to believe is their right.

We should have more people like Dr. Rita Levi-Montalcini. What a wonderful legacy she leaves us.

Senator Dr. Rita Levi-Montalcini (1909-2012), Rome, Italy.

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