THE advantage of living to a very great age is that you tend to have the last word. Rita Levi-Montalcini saw her scientific discoveries sniffed at throughout the 1950s and 1960s, only to win the Nobel prize for physiology in 1986. She conducted her early experiments in hiding, but rose to the pinnacle of Italian public life. Along the way, she proved that you can exude bella figura from every pore and still win the world’s highest intellectual honour. Both were a matter of precision, of flair, and of insisting—sometimes loudly, sometimes in silence—on what she wanted.
The battles raged right from the beginning, at the heart of her wealthy Jewish family in Turin. Her father, a mathematician, electrical engineer and all-round “Victorian”, believed that women should not study. Quite against his wishes, she enrolled in medical school. On her graduation in 1936 she became an assistant to Giuseppe Levi, a histologist who taught her the technique of silver-staining nerve cells so that they could be seen more clearly under a microscope. The fascists, however, had other plans for her, and in 1938 barred her from academia. Undaunted—laughingly defiant, in fact, that il Duce should think her “inferior”—she set up a primitive lab in her bedroom to carry out work on chicken embryos. Levi, barred too, now came to work for her in secret, their roles reversed.
First there, and later in a safer house in the countryside (where she would cycle round from farm to farm, collecting the necessary eggs), the pair worked on the problem she made her own: how nerves growing out from an embryonic spinal cord find the particular developing limbs they will innervate. In 1934 Viktor Hamburger, an embryologist at Washington University in St Louis, Missouri, had suggested that limb buds produce an attractive chemical signal. Her own experiments, using scalpels made out of sewing needles, persuaded her that what the buds actually produce is a substance that stimulates nerve growth.
Once the war was over, Hamburger noticed the clarity of her work; he invited her to St Louis to continue her experiments, and there she stayed, on and off, until her retirement in 1979 (though she never really retired, snapping that it led to decay of the brain). It was in St Louis that she joined a biochemist, Stanley Cohen, to prove the existence of nerve-growth factor (NGF), finally silencing her critics with the publication in 1971 of the elusive protein’s structure. Eventually, in 1986, she and Cohen shared the Nobel for their discoveries. She later showed that NGF is important in the immune system, launching a line of research that has since grown exponentially.
From 1962 she began to divide her time between St Louis and Rome (too much missed) where she set up a laboratory. In both places, she worked ferociously. Five hours of sleep a night was quite enough. One meal a day, at lunchtime—soup, an orange—suited her fine. Work kept her going. Her roller-coaster life had given her a high sense of drama, and she could tell a good story—too good, sometimes, for the plain-words world of science. When one neuroscientist toned down her description of their findings in a joint paper, she accused him of turning her beautiful prose into boiled spinach. He called her a cross between Marie Curie and Maria Callas.
The dark side of the brain
With a mother and twin sister who were both painters, she, too, often thought like an artist. She made intuitive, imaginative leaps which she then tested by experiment, rather than edging towards the truth in pigeon steps. Many of her papers she illustrated herself (delighting to draw the haloes of nerve fibres growing out in orderly confidence from the ganglia of chicks); she made her own clothes and designed her own jewellery. Tiny and bird-like, with a beautiful coif of white or rinsed hair in old age, she wore high heels with her lab coat, and wielded her minute spatulas with exquisitely manicured hands.
An ardent champion of scientific training for women (she set up a foundation for it), she never married or had children. It was a girlhood decision she never regretted; she simply refused to play second fiddle, as her mother had. Nor did she care to stop. Long after her “retirement”, la professoressa continued to work tirelessly on science and, after becoming a senator for life in 2001, in politics. She actively supported the centre-left governments of Romano Prodi and enjoyed hobbling those of Silvio Berlusconi, especially when they proposed laws unhelpful to research. Despite her own artistic bent, she lamented that human beings in the modern age were too much led by the “archaic”, emotional right hemisphere of their brains.
One of her great wishes was to bequeath to Italy a world-class institute for scientific research. She did so in 2002, when the European Brain Research Institute (EBRI) was launched in Rome. EBRI later suffered from lack of money, and she was accused of acting like an autocrat over it; but she was swiftly forgiven, in Italy at least. Her 100th birthday party was held in 2009 in Rome’s city hall, where—elegant as ever in a dark blue suit—the “Lady of the Cells” toasted herself in sparkling wine, took a crumb of the hazelnut and chocolate cake, and, with an arch of a perfect eyebrow, declared her brain in better shape than it had been when she was 20.