Nobel Laureate and Neurobiologist Rita Levi-Montalcini is not only an inspiration for Jewish generations for her advances in science, politics, and fighting on behalf of Israel, but she also embodies the Jewish story. From her ancient Jewish-Italian routes of the Jewish Italkim who have lived in Italy as Jews for almost 2000 years to her surviving the Holocaust while keeping up her scientific work, Levi-Montalcini embodies so much for the Jewish story.
So who is Rita Levi-Montalcini, and why does her story keep inspiring so many?
Rita was born in 1909 in Torino, Italy, to Jewish Sephardic parents. What is unique about her family is that they were able to trace themselves all the way back to the times of the Roman empire. At a young age, her beloved nanny died from cancer, which led young Rita to want to become a doctor, against her father’s will, who believed this would prevent her from fulfilling her role as a wife and a mother. In 1930 Rita began studying medicine at the University of Torino, and in 1936 she started her specialty studies in neurology and psychiatry.
In 1938, fascist Italy passed race laws that prevented her from continuing to study medicine and led her to research which led her to move to Brussels. Once the Nazis came to Belgium in 1940, Rita moved back to Italy, where she continued her research in her family’s home.
Rita studied the development of nerves in chicken eggs and built a lab in her bedroom. Rita made the most of whatever she had under challenging circumstances. She would experiment with the chicken eggs and cook and eat the remaining yokes.
Levi-Montalcini famously said: “You never know what is good, what is bad in life; I mean, in my case, it was my good chance.” This was very much a product of her personal experience.
In 1943 the Levy family fled to Florence, southern Italy. They built for themselves false identities and were saved with the help of non-Jewish friends. After her area was liberated, Rita volunteered with the allied forces and helped out until Italy was liberated. She then worked for a year as a physician in a DP camp in Italy.
In 1946 Montalcini was offered a fellowship at Washington University in St. Louis, where she would spend the next 20 years. Through her experiments with chickens and eggs, she showed that with every cancerous tumor, rapid nerve growth occurs.
In 1986, Levy Montalcini received a Nobel prize in physiology alongside professor Stanly Cohen for their research on nerve growth factor. Her research changed the way we understand nerves and is key to developments in the fields of treating Alzheimer’s and other nervous diseases. Her research is critical to understanding the immune system, the impact of nerve growth factor on ovulation and fertility, cancer treatment, organ donation, and much more.
Levi-Montalcini also had a great personality and a sense of humor. The following was shared about the time she had won the Nobel prize.
“In 1986, Levi-Montalcini and Cohen shared the Nobel Prize for this achievement. When the phone rang in Rome with the news, she was pages from the end of Agatha Christie’s Evil under the Sun. “At the moment that I was finding out about the criminal, they told me that I was awarded the Nobel,” she laughs, getting up to retrieve the book from the hallway. She points to a hand-written note on the second-to-last page—befitting a neuroscientist, her edition has a skull on the cover—where she had marked “call from Stockholm” and the time. “So I was very happy about it, but I wanted much more to know the end of the story,” she admits.” (interview in the Scientific American)
In 2001 Levi-Montolcini was appointed by the Italian president as Senator for life, a job that carried great power with it. Because of the elements of politics involved in this role, she was often criticized by right-wing politicians but, by and large, remained very respected throughout America.
Levy Montolcini also did a great deal of charitable work. She had a foundation that was very much dedicated to helping women in Africa, as she believed the world owed that continent a lot for what had been done to it through colonization and more.
Levy Montolcini was also a true friend of Israel, visited it several times, enhanced scientific collaboration between Israel and Europe, and was proud of who she was as a Jew. At age 99, she visited the Technion University in Haifa, where she spoke to female students. She talked about the fact that she never got married or had children and how, in her days, you had to choose between the two and how happy she was for women in Israel who did not have to make that choice and could have family lives as well as scientific careers.
When Italian academics attempted to boycott Israel, Levi-Montalcini strongly opposed such a boycott and dealt with the backlash from her opposition. She even used her position in the Italian Senate to counter the efforts of BDS. There is a street in the Israeli city of Rishon Letzion.
Levy Montalcini died in 2012 at the age of 103. She was the longest-living Nobel winner and worked almost until her last day. She taught generations of Jews what it meant to stick to your goal, to contribute to humanity, and of the Jewish imperative of continuing to thrive and never giving up no matter how difficult things may be.
(The article is based on my notes for my lecture series “Jews of the Nobel” given in Park East Synagogue, New York).