Lab-solutely fabulous

February 8, 2002

She's Italy's La Professoressa, role model for feminists and cham-pion of cash-starved researchers, but for her, science is there to help the world's poor. Paul Bompard meets Rita Levi Montalcini.

There is something marvellously regal about Rita Levi Montalcini. At 93, she is a small, deceptively fragile figure dressed in beautifully made but timeless clothes. Snow-white hair and pale blue eyes that radiate serenity contrast with a mouth brimming with kindly irony that is quick to criticise what she feels needs to be criticised. The apparent fragility belies an astounding intensity and energy that finds its outlets not just in her role as director of one of the National Research Council's laboratories, but in writing books, sitting on committees and panels and a substantial workload of various kinds of social work.

In 1986 she shared the Nobel prize for medicine, with Stanley Cohen, for studies on cell-growth factors carried out in the United States. In Italy she was immediately acclaimed by politicians and the media as a shining example of Italian genius. But soon afterwards she complained that the acclaim had not been followed by sufficient funding for her institute, which was forced to carry on with a skeleton staff made up of post-graduate researchers on scholarships.

Since then, for millions of Italians who have not the remotest understanding of cell-growth factors, "La Professoressa" has become a mixture of fairy godmother and surrogate queen. She has also become a role model for feminists, a champion of researchers battling for more resources, and a favourite source for journalists looking for quotable words of wisdom on virtually any subject under the sun.

She has bitterly criticised the Berlusconi government's cuts in research funding, and has expressed the opinion that any biological research, short of human cloning, is legitimate in the pursuit of scientific knowledge. This is a fairly courageous position in a research establishment often wary of straying too far from the Vatican's point of view.

Last August she was made a life senator, one of only seven allowed by the constitution and only the second woman to hold the title. She heads a foundation that finances scholarships for women in developing countries, was for several years president of the Italian Encyclopaedia and is the figurehead or head of more committees and foundations than probably even she can remember.

Levi Montalcini remembers that when she graduated in medicine from Turin University in 1936 she was, to her knowledge, the only woman to embark on a career in research. "I was the only one, but I must say I had an excellent relationship with all my male colleagues. Since then things have changed, of course, at least in the culturally developed countries. Today there are more women than men working in scientific research. But the problem remains that women rarely reach very high positions, which is a pity. And there is always the problem of reconciling a life dedicated to science and being a wife and a mother."

She believes that today the paramount priority for the world of science must be to help the poor countries of the world. "For me the priority is to come immediately to the aid of the so-called emerging or developing regions of the world. Both to combat the diseases that are devastating Africa and to help young women, who have already demonstrated great intelligence and competence in the political and social spheres.

"My foundation, the Rita Montalcini Foundation, has financed five-year scholarships for 30 young women in rural Ethiopia, and soon there will be another 30 scholarships. And with the International Brain Organisation I'm also working on scholarships for women in the Saharan countries."

She scornfully dismisses claims by drugs firms that it is impractical to distribute drugs free or at very low cost to poor countries.

"This is a tragic attitude. The pharmaceutical companies earn enough to absorb the very small losses to their profits that would result. In Cameroon, for instance, an enormous number of people die of diabetes, but there seems to be no way to supply them with insulin. And insulin is a cheap drug. They are crying out for insulin, they have begged me to do what I can to get them supplies.

"In other areas, children become blind because of the onchocerciasis, or 'river blindness'. There is a simple remedy for this. But there seems no way of getting supplies out there, when the disease could be tackled and beaten relatively easily. There is absolutely no justification that is morally or ethically sustainable. I simply do not accept the justifications of the pharmaceutical companies."

In her first autobiography, Levi Montalcini describes her early experiments on cell growth in the 1930s. But when the Mussolini regime passed the "race laws" persecuting Jews, she was expelled from the university and hence from the laboratory where she had been working.

"I set up a makeshift lab in my small bedroom, which was about 2m by 3m. That was a kind of Renaissance era of research. I used to make tiny scalpels by taking needles and filing them down. And the results were good. In 1943 I believe I was the first to discover cell death by apoptosis, which was officially recognised as such in 1972. I would see the cells dying, and I knew it was not necrosis. Subsequently, with electron microscopes it was discovered that it was another form of death, programmed into the cells. I would see thousands of cells, suddenly disappearing. I described this so precisely that I was subsequently given the credit for having discovered, without realising it, death by apoptosis."

Levi Montalcini has surprisingly little bitterness regarding her persecution as a Jew. "My colleagues used to come and see me in my bedroom-laboratory, and they sympathised. So I had no feeling of being rejected or despised. It is true, of course, that from the academic establishment there was no protest. All the non-Jewish academics had to swear an oath of loyalty to Mussolini, and out of thousands only 12 refused. There was indifference to what was happening to Jews, cowardice if you will. There was silence and no courage from the academic community. Nevertheless I felt I was in a sympathetic environment, I was never insulted and really never suffered personally."

Despite her age, Levi Montalcini still directs her research laboratory at the National Research Council. "The loss of my sight, which has been very trying, means I cannot take part directly in the experiments. Although my hands still work perfectly. Most of my energy now is dedicated to social work and to developing countries. And I write books. One I've written recently deals with how famous figures in history continued to work when they were very old, Michaelangelo and Bertrand Russell, for instance."

BIOGRAPHY

Rita Levi Montalcini was born in Turin in 1909 and graduated in medicine, " summa cum laude ", from Turin University, 1936. She became an assistant at the university's Clinic of Neurobiology and Psychiatry, but in 1938 was forced by the "race laws" to leave the university and continued her work at home.

Between 1943 and 1944, when Italy was occupied by the Germans, she was in hiding in Florence.

Between 1944 and 1945 she worked as a volunteer physician with the allied forces in Florence, before returning to Turin as assistant professor of anatomy.

In 1947 she went to the Institute of Zoology, Washington University, in St Louis, Missouri, first as a research associate and then as associate professor.

In 1958, she moved to the Institute of Biology as professor of neurobiology. She became professor emeritus there in 1977. It was there that she carried out most of the work that earned her the 1986 Nobel.

From the early 1960s she worked with the Italian National Research Council, and became head of its cellular biology laboratory. During the 1960s and 1970s, she travelled between St Louis and Rome.

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