Dr. Rita Levi-Montalcini, a Nobel-prize winning scientist who defied the Fascist regime in her native Italy, died Sunday at her home in Rome at age 103.
Rome Mayor Gianni Alemanno announced her death in a statement, calling it a great loss "for all of humanity" and said she represented "civic conscience, culture and the spirit of research of our time," reports AP.
A biologist and neurologist, Dr. Levi-Montalcini conducted underground research in defiance of the Fascist government and discovered critical clues to medical mysteries including cancer, developmental malformations and dementia, reports AP.
Her research with American biochemist Stanley Cohen earned the pair a Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine in 1986.
"In the early 1950s she and Dr. Stanley Cohen, a biochemist also at Washington University, isolated and described the chemical, known as nerve growth factor — and in the process altered the study of cell growth and development. Scientists soon realized that the protein gave them a new way to study and understand disorders of neural growth, like cancer, or of degeneration, like Alzheimer’s disease, and to potentially develop therapies." - The New York Times
“I don’t use these words easily, but her work revolutionized the study of neural development, from how we think about it to how we intervene,” said Dr. Gerald D. Fishbach, a neuroscientist and professor emeritus at Columbia University told the New York Times.
Dr. Levi-Montalcini was born in Turin, Italy on April 22, 1909 to Italian Jewish parents. According to her 1988 autobiography "In Praise of Imperfection", Levi-Montalcini decided she wanted to become a doctor after the cancer death of her governess, Giovanna.
According to the New York Times, her father did not approve of her career choice and preferred her to become a wife and mother but eventually agreed to support her.
"I told him how much Giovanna's death had shaken me and how I was convinced that the profession I wanted to follow was that of medical doctor. He objected that it was a long and difficult course of study, unsuitable for a woman," she wrote. "'If this is really what you want,'' he replied, ''then I won't stand in your way, even if I'm very doubtful about your choice.''"
Dr. Levi-Montalcini graduated summa cum laude from the University of Turin medical school in 1936, the year that Italian dictator Benito Mussolini banned Jews from universities and major professions, reports AP.
Her family stayed in Italy during WWII and she set up a makeshift laboratory in her bedroom to study chicken embryos, which AP reports, would later lead to her "major discovery of mechanisms that regulate growth of cells and organs."
Dr. Levi Montalcini kept up with her research well into old age. "At 100, I have a mind that is superior — thanks to experience — than when I was 20," she said in 2009.