Special to the JTA Nobel Laureate’s Life Shaped by the Fate of the Jewish People
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Special to the JTA Nobel Laureate’s Life Shaped by the Fate of the Jewish People

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Dr. Rita Levi-Montalcini, who this week shared the Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology with American biochemist Stanley Cohen, comes from a family of Italian Jewish intellectuals in Turin. Now, at 77, this small, elegant, bright-eyed woman recalls first hearing the expression “freethinker” from her father, Prof. Giussepe Levi, at the age of three.

That and deeply ingrained feminism — her idol, she says, was Simone de Beauvoir — defined her life and work. But her distinguished career was also shaped by the people and events that marked the fate of the Jewish people in this century.

Her family left Italy to escape the stultifying and repressive atmosphere of Mussolini’s fascism. They lived in Belgium for a time, but when the Nazis invaded in 1940, they fled back to Italy. Because she was Jewish she was denied employment and research facilities, though she already held a Doctorate.


Because of the family’s opposition to fascism, they were forced to live clandestinely in Florence under the assumed name of Lovisato, from “southern Italy,” a disguise belied by their northern Italian accent.

In a makeshift laboratory, set up in her bedroom, Levi-Montalcini conducted experiments secretly during the war years. She begged for eggs “for needy children” from farmers and extracted the embryos for her work. The results of her experiments went unpublished in fascist Italy because “she belonged to the Jewish race.”

Recognition came in post-war Italy and in the U.S., where she went in 1947 to accept a teaching and research post with Prof. Viktor Hamburger at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo.

Levi-Montalcini was the first woman admitted to the Pontifical Academy of Science and, in 1968, the sixth woman to gain admittance to the American Academy of Science. Long before getting the Nobel Prize, she won two major international prizes, the Medicineltrinelli in 1969 and the St. Vincent in 1970.

Her Nobel Prize stemmed from work completed in the U.S. in 1951: discovery of NGF, a protein growth factor that stimulates nerve cell development. It was the result, she says, of an intuition best described in a Latin proverb which states that there is physiological connection between a sound mind and a sound body.

The discovery, and parallel work by Cohen, hold out promise that cures can be found for Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases, which attack the human nervous system. It has also led to further research on the relation between nerve cells and the immunological defense system.

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