Posted by: gillarbuthnott | January 6, 2013

Goodbye to a Legend…

ritaI have to begin 2013 by saying goodbye to one of my scientific heroines, Rita Levi-Montalcini. Chances are you won’t have heard of her, but she was quite something.

She was born in 1909, into a Jewish-Italian family. Although she wanted to study medicine, her father was against careers for women, so she was sent to finishing school instead of an academic school. Eventually she persuaded her father to relent, and graduated as a doctor in 1936. In 1938 Jews in Italy were banned from medical practice, so instead Rita set up a lab in her bedroom and began to study the development of chick embryos, using tiny scientific instruments she made from sewing needles. The family had to go into hiding from Nazis, and used forged papers made by Rita and her twin sister Paola. Rita carried on with her research all through the war, and identified a chemical needed for nerve cells to survive and grow.

After the war, she moved to America and continued to research at universities there and in Italy until she was well into her eighties. She was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1986 for her discovery of Nerve Growth Factor, and until last week, was the oldest living Nobel laureate. She was revered in Italy, where she was a senator, using her vote in support of science whenever possible. Definitely a legend…

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