Rita Levi Montalcini - Torino, 22 aprile 1909 – Roma, 30 dicembre 2012
Rita Levi Montalcini was born in Turin on April 22, 1909, the youngest of four children, and enjoyed a most wonderful family atmosphere, filled with love and reciprocal devotion. At twenty, she realized that she could not possibly adjust to a feminine role as conceived by her father, and so asked him 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. Two of her university colleagues and close friends, Salvador Luria and Renato Dulbecco, were to receive the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, respectively, seventeen and eleven years before I would receive the same most prestigious award. In 1936 she graduated from medical school with a summa cum laude degree in Medicine and Surgery, and enrolled in the three year specialization in neurology and psychiatry. In 1936 Mussolini issued the "Manifesto per la Difesa della Razza", signed by ten Italian 'scientists'. The manifesto was soon followed by the promulgation of laws barring academic and professional careers to non-Aryan Italian citizens. The two alternatives left then to us were either to emigrate to the United States, or to pursue some activity that needed neither support nor connection with the outside Aryan world where we lived. The family chose this second alternative. She build a small research unit at home and installed it in her bedroom. The heavy bombing of Turin by Anglo-American air forces in 1941 made it imperative to abandon Turin and flee to Florence, where the family lived underground until the end of the war. In August of 1944, the advancing Anglo-American armies forced the German invaders to leave Florence. At the Anglo-American Headquarters, she was hired as a medical doctor and assigned to a camp of war refugees. When the war anded she returned to Turin where she resumed her academic positions at the University. In the Fall of 1947, an invitation from Professor Viktor Hamburger to join him and repeat the experiments performed many years earlier in the chick embryo, was to change the course of her life. Although she had planned to remain in St. Louis for one year, the excellent results of our research made it imperative to postpone her return to Italy. In 1956 she was offered the position of Associate Professor and in 1958 that of Full Professor, a position held until retirement in 1977.