Rita Levi-Montalcini, who will turn 103 on April 22, is the longest-living women to have won the Nobel Prize (for Physiology or Medicine) for her discovery of nerve growth factor, or NGF, a protein crucial for the growth, maintenance, and survival of neurons. She now continues to work every day as a Senator for Life in Italy. The fact that Levi-Montalcini discovered NGF (along with Stanley Cohen) is making people wonder: Has this woman unlocked one of the secrets to longevity? Exhibit A: She’s about to turn 103 and still goes to work every day.
Obviously, the title above is a bit of an exaggeration. Surely, nothing can help us live forever, and I’m pretty sure only fictional supervillains and the mentally ill would want to be immortal. However, either Dr. Levi-Montalcini has amazing genes (which she does — her father was an electrical engineer, her mother was a painter), or she has found a way to help the human body live longer.
But it almost never happened, or it could have at least been a lot harder. As advanced a person as her father was, Adamo Levi didn’t think it was appropriate for a girl to attend college or learn a profession. This didn’t stop Levi-Montalcini from enrolling in medical school in 1930 after watching a family friend die of cancer. She ended up graduating summa cum laude from Turin University in 1936. And from there, it didn’t get any easier. Over in Germany, Adolf Hitler and the Nazis were trying to position the Aryan race as the world’s “superior” race. (Kuriositas points out that this was just around the time Jesse Owens, the African-American track and field superstar, won four gold medals in the 1936 Olympics — in Berlin.) Italy’s dictator Benito Mussolini followed the Nazi example and issued the “Laws of Race,” which made it impossible for Levi-Montacini, who was Jewish Italian, to pursue any further studies in her home country. She went to Brussels, Belgium, though she had to flee from there in 1940 when the Nazis invaded.
Eventually, she was able to return to Turin, where she continued her research in her bedroom and later moved to a cottage in the countryside, away from the city while it was being bombed throughout WWII. The bombing later took her to Florence, where she rode out the rest of the war, working in a laboratory underground. Not even WWII could stop this woman from scientific research.
As a doctor, she was assigned to work at a refugee camp, where she provided several people crucial information about epidemics and illnesses including typhoid. And when the war was finally over, she accepted an academic position in St. Louis, Missouri, and Dr. Levi-Montalcini came to America, where she stayed until 1977. She had only intended to stay for 10 months while she performed experiments on embryos, delving into the amino acids that make up cells and help them grow. And it was during her time in America when she discovered NGF.
Levi-Montalcini was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1986, and to this day, she uses eye drops — eye drops containing NGF. And now, she’s almost 103 years old. Apparently, the NGF that Levi-Montalcini helped to discover directly affect the survival of neurons and brain function. And it might be a very effective way to treat or prevent diseases such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinsons.
All these years after the fall of Mussolini and war, Levi-Montalcini was honored by her home country by being named a Senator for Life, a position that she does not treat as merely “honorary.” In fact, she uses her political position to continue supporting the country’s center-left government — after everything the old center-right government put her through, it’s the least she could do for her country. Remember, her political career began in her 90s.
Dr. Levi-Montalcini has done amazing things in her life, whether it was about her own personal well-being and progress or that of many, many others. Let’s raise a glass to Rita Levi-Montalcini!