Intellect, experience and motivation

  “At 100, I have a mind that is superior – thanks to experience – than when I was 20…”     Rita Levi-Montalcini,  b. 22 April 1909 

Italian neurologist Rita Levi-Montalcini, who won the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1986 when in her late 70s, turned 100 today. She shared the Nobel Prize with American Stanley Cohen for discovering mechanisms that regulate the growth of cells and organs.

She must have internalised the knowledge: at a ceremony held in her honor by the European Brain Research Institute last Saturday she said that her mind is sharper than it was she when she was 20.    

She also said “Above all, don’t fear difficult moments-the best comes from them.” She has had plenty of those during her long lifetime.

Turin-born Levi-Montalcini almost never made it to University. She had decided to go to medical school after seeing a close family friend die of cancer. In her 1988 autobiography In Praise of Imperfection: My Life and Work  she recounts how her father opposed tertiary studies for his daughters.He loved us dearly and had a great respect for women, but he believed that a professional career would interfere with the duties of a wife and mother. He therefore decided that the three of us – Anna, Paola and I – would not engage in studies which open the way to a professional career and that we would not enroll in the University.”

She realised that she could not possibly adjust to a feminine role as conceived by her father and gained his permission to engage in a professional career. In eight months she filled her gaps in Latin, Greek and mathematics, graduated from high school, and entered medical school in Turin from which she graduated in 1936 with a summa cum laude degree in Medicine and Surgery.

She enrolled in the three year specialization in neurology and psychiatry, still uncertain whether she should devote herself fully to the medical profession or pursue at the same time basic research in neurology. Her perplexity was not to last too long. The anti-Jewish laws of the 1930s under Benito Mussolini’s Fascist regime forced her to quit university and do research in an improvised laboratory in her bedroom at home. She conducted experiments from a home laboratory, studying the growth of nerve fibres in chicken embryos, which laid the groundwork for much of her later research.

Starting  just after the war finished she  spent 30 years at Washington University in St. Louis where she did her most important work: isolating the nerve growth factor (NGF) from observations of certain cancerous tissues that cause extremely rapid growth of nerve cells in 1952. In 1962 she established a Neurobiology research unit in Rome, dividing the rest of her time between there and St. Louis. 

Her life’s work laid important foundations for answers to modern questions. Do we lose brain cells as we get older? Are we destined to lose our faculties as we age?  Some studies suggest that physical exercise keeps brains healthy.  There is also research that suggests that we can keep our brains working well by using them regularly. 

At 100 not out Rita Levi-Montalcini is living testimony to the power of an active brain and an active life, imperfect though it may have been in her own rigorous terms. She is currently the oldest living and the longest-lived Nobel laureate and is still adding new chapters to her life. She actively takes part in the Upper House discussions in the Italian Senate unless busy in academic activities around the world.

Ironically, in the last four years she has become the target of some young Italian bloggers because of her age and ethnicity.  However, her intellect and her experience are more than adequate defences to the offensive comments of the digerati.

Happy birthday Rita.


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