Rita Levi-Montalcini: Kicking Ass and Doing Science -The Toast

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Alexis Coe’s past essays on women’s history for The Toast can be found here. Most recently: Ada Yonath: The Birth of a Scientist. This, and all subsequent editions of Alexis’ columnn (!) are brought to you courtesy of a sweet and generous sponsor who wishes to be known as The Ghost of Jane Addams.

Rita Levi-Montalcini (1909-2012) loved her father, but had she obeyed him, she would have never won the Nobel Prize. Afraid it would interfere with his daughters’ future duties as wives and mothers in Italy, Adamo Levi forbade all three to pursue any sort of professionalization.

By all accounts, he was a formidable man whose own siblings dubbed him “Damino the Terrible.” At age of 20, Levi-Montalcini knew she would be unable to adhere to his domestic expectations, and so she tried to reason with the electrical engineer and factory owner. Later, in interviews, she would emphasize how she “strongly resented the different roles played by my father and mother in all family decisions.” Adamo liked to call his budding scientist a “shrinking violet,” but her mother, Adele Montalcini, believed her to be strong and independent, and lobbied on her behalf. Adamo swore she would be miserable, but nonetheless acquiesced; in 1936, Levi-Montalcini graduated from medical school at the University of Turin.

And yet, this specialization did not define her. “I have never become a scientist. I am more of an artist,” Levi-Montalcini said. Her mother was a painter, and her fraternal twin sister, Paola, would become a famous one, as well as a sculptor, and brother Gino a prominent post-war architect. Her elder sister, Anna, who once dreamed of emulating the Swedish writer and Nobel Laureate Selma Lagerlöf, would be the only daughter to realize her father’s wishes.

Just two years into her career, Prime Minister Benito Mussolini issued the Manifesto della Razza (Manifesto of Race). Under the tutelage of Adolf Hitler, the Fascist government stripped Jews of Italian citizenship and forbid non-Aryans from pursuing academic and professional careers. The Levis did not attend synagogue, and Adamo actually encouraged his children to choose their own religion, but Judaism suddenly defined the family, and their options. They could immigrate, or adhere to the oppressive, anti-Semitic laws, living a new life wholly disconnected from their Aryan neighbors. They chose to stay, but their life in Turin would never be the same. Streets were littered with threatening posters depicting the torture of Jews. Violating fascist laws would result in death, they promised, and yet Levi-Montalcini was determined to be of use. She spent long days in the attics of old houses, unable to offer more than diagnoses and advice. Only Aryan physicians were allowed to write scripts, and only Aryan patients able to fill them.

Still, Levi-Montalcini could not forgo her own research, drawn to “the beauty of the nervous system,” and set about building a makeshift workspace in her bedroom. It paled in comparison to the university labs, but it did provide the kind of quiet, removed space one needs to focus. Household items were repurposed, and the most important materials, chicken eggs and essential instruments, were smuggled in by friends, many of them Catholics with whom she had attended medical school. They managed to supply her with two microscopes, a microtome, and an incubator. A watchmaker gave her forceps, and ophthalmologist loaned out scissors. Gino built her a glass case to operate on the embryos.

By 1942, the war was inescapable. In retaliation for the bombing of Malta, the British Royal Air Force took to the skies above Genoa and Turin, driving those who survived into the Italian Alps. The family fled to a country cottage where Levi-Montalcini rebuilt her lab, and visited the surrounding farmland to collect fertilized chicken eggs. After she removed the cells, the family, with the exception of Gino, who supported his sister just short of ingesting her experiment’s leftovers, ate the eggs for dinner. Just a year later, the German invasion forced them to go underground, and the family retreated to a safe house in Florence. When Anglo-American armies forced the Germans out, Levi-Montalcini was hired as a doctor. The war raged in the North, and hundreds of refugees suffering from infectious diseases and abdominal typhus sought her care.

Back in the first bedroom laboratory, she had relied on a 1934 article by Viktor Hamburger on the effects of limb extirpation in chick embryos, research that “was to change the course of my life.” He hypothesized that cells in the outer part of the developing body take part in the growth of their centers, which Levi-Montalcini confirmed in her makeshift labs. After the war ended, she accepted Hamburger’s 1947 invitation to repeat her experiments on the growth of nerve fibers in chicken embryos at Washington University in St. Louis, and she agreed to stay for a year. By 1977, she had been a full professor there for two decades.

By the time Stanley Cohen joined Hamburger’s laboratory in 1952, Levi-Montalcini had successfully demonstrated that mouse tumors, when transplanted into chick embryos, induced nerve growth at a vigorous rate. Cohen purified the protein and determined the sequence of its amino acids, stumbling upon a second growth factor while extracting salivary glands from mice, which stimulated processes in the body. Early clinical trials showed that the nerve growth factor would increase a wounded animal’s ability to heal.

In the 1960s, Levi-Montalcini returned to Italy. Her mother was in ill-health, and she missed her native country. Given her success, she was able to establish the Institute of Cell Biology in Rome, where she would serve as director until 1979.

In 1986, the Nobel Prize Committee honored Levi-Motalcini and Cohen for discoveries that are “of fundamental importance for our understanding of the mechanisms which regulate cell and organ growth.” Their research was lauded as much for its existence as its potential to understand other diseases, such as dementia.

Levi-Montalcini died in Rome on December 30, 2012. At 103-years-old, she never married or had children, a choice she was relentlessly asked about. In 2006, the “Lady of the Cells” assured an interviewer she had no regrets: “My life has been enriched by excellent human relations, work and interests. I have never felt lonely.”

Further Reading:

Hitchcock, Susan Tyle. Rita Levi-Montalcini.
Levi-Montalcini, Rita. In Praise of Imperfection.
Marx, Jean L. The 1986 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine.
Silberner, J. “Collaborators Cohen, Levi-Montalcini Win Medical Nobel”
Yount, Lisa. Rita Levi-Montalcini: Discoverer of Nerve Growth Factor.

Alexis Coe is The Toast's history correspondent. She holds a master's degree in American women's political history, and was a research curator at the New York Public Library. Alexis is also a columnist at The Awl, and has contributed to The Atlantic, Slate, the Paris Review Daily, and many others. Her first book, Alice+Freda Forever, will be published on October 7th. Follow her @alexis_coe.

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