Rita Levi-Montalcini

30 Dec

Dr. Rita Levi-Montalcini, 103-year-old neuroscientist and all-around impressive individual, has passed away this weekend. (2012 has been a bad year to be a personal hero of mine, statistically.)

Graduating medical school in 1930s Italy as a Jewish woman, Levi-Montalcini faced unbelievable amounts of adversity from the beginning of her academic career. Nonetheless, she went on to share the 1986 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine with Stanley Cohen for their discovery of nerve growth factor (NGF). NGF is crucial to the survival of many neurons, and is therefore a focus of ongoing research into disorders where cell growth is abnormal, including dementia.

While her loss remains a loss to us all, Levi-Montalcini was also the first Nobel Laureate to reach 100 years of age, and if that’s not the best that can be hoped for in a lifetime, I don’t know what is.

The Guardian has a profile that is well worth a read. The following is my favorite passage:

“Making her own microsurgical and tissue-manipulating equipment – using, among other things, reshaped domestic sewing needles and modified watchmaker’s tweezers — she began her fruitful investigation into normal and abnormal neural development and its mechanisms of control. Discovery of her activities could have resulted in imprisonment or death, but she attracted little interest by buying fertile eggs to investigate the early phases of nerve growth in chick embryos. As a bonus to concealment, many of the experiments could be eaten when they were finished.”

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2 Responses to “Rita Levi-Montalcini”

  1. joanne boots January 2, 2013 at 8:05 am #

    i love the idea of eating your work when you are done. thanks for information and laughter.

  2. littlehistorian January 5, 2013 at 3:33 pm #

    I thought NGF was Nerd Growth Factor for a moment. Thanks for sharing about this impressive woman!

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