BIOLOGY AND DESTINY: The Feminist Awakening of Nobel Prize Winner Rita Levi-Montalcini

BIOLOGY AND DESTINY: The Feminist Awakening of Nobel Prize Winner Rita Levi-Montalcini

by Ruby Rohrlich

HOW COULD YOU RETURN TO LIVE IN a country that persecuted you, that took away your citizenship, your profession, and forced you to live underground to survive?” Rita Levi-Montalcini, winner of the 1986 Nobel Prize in Science, never answered my question. Instead, smiling a little, she set down her watering can amid the dozens of coral and crimson plants and went to the book shelves in the apartment she shares with her twin sister, Paola. When she returned to the room, Levi-Montalcini gave me an armful of family papers, books, and descriptions of her- Nobel-winning discovery of Nerve Growth Factor, a natural chemical that helps nerve cells to navigate and survive and may someday be used to regenerate damaged or severed nerves.

Rita Levi-Montalcini

Born in 1909, Rita Levi-Montalcini will soon be 88 years old. Her slim carriage is erect, her hands don’t tremble, she doesn’t wear glasses. Her thick, gray hair is smartly and simply styled, and so are her clothes. Her hyphenated name, and the elegant gold jewelry she wore, once led an American psychologist who encountered Rita at scientific meetings to assume she was supported by a wealthy Italian husband.

Nothing could be further from the facts of her life.

An anxious child, Rita Levi-Montalcini grew up utterly lacking in self-confidence, afraid of her father, Adamo Levi. A businessman with an exuberant love of opera, Adamo was also a controlling patriarch; his wife, Adele Montalcini, nine years his junior, accepted his authority and tolerated his explosive temper. Paola was not intimidated by the severity and piercing quality of Adamo’s gaze, the silent flaring of the nostrils preceding his brief but violent outbursts of anger, the imperious voice. Rita trembled with fear when she saw such behavior and, extending this fear to all adults, fled from them. Her father’s stories about the precarious situation of Jews under the Italian Inquisition and during the pogroms in Eastern Europe gave her nightmares into adulthood.

Undoubtedly it was also Adamo’s temperament that impelled him to make all the decisions in the household, right down to the kinds of hats worn by the twin girls. When it came time for higher education, it took two years for Rita to persuade her father to allow her to enter medical school. According to Adamo, two of his six sisters, both of whom had doctoral degrees, had found it very difficult to reconcile their studies with their conjugal and maternal roles.

Adamo objected that medicine “was a long and difficult course of study, unsuitable for a woman.” The young Rita had already decided to forego marriage, however, and she had no interest at all in babies. In her autobiography, In Praise of Imperfection, she wrote that “the subordinate role played by the female in a society run entirely by men made the status of a wife less than attractive.”

Finally her father yielded. Rita and her cousin, Eugenia, spent a year preparing for entrance exams: with the help of tutors, they learned Latin, Greek and mathematics. The two young women studied philosophy, literature and history on their own. Their concentration was rewarded when Rita scored highest on the list of candidates on the entrance exams. In 1930, both she and Eugenia enrolled in Turin University Medical School on the banks of the River Po.

Rita was one of seven women in a class of 300 students; she made few friends at the university. A classmate once described her “as a kind of squid, ready to squirt ink at anybody who came near.” She did, however, attract a mentor, Giuseppe Levi (no relation). Later, she would describe him as “celebrated in Turin University as a scientist, for the anti-fascism he professed with supreme disdain for the most elementary rules of caution, and for his terrible but short-lived fits of rage.”

Rita graduated at the head of her class in 1936, and was rewarded with a trip to a scientific conference in Sweden. She decided to specialize in neurology and psychiatry, and was given a job as assistant lecturer in the anatomy department. But history intervened.

Underground Research

In 1936 Mussolini’s ties with Hitler became closer and the Italian Fascists began to vilify the Jews. When the anti-Jewish laws were passed in 1938, Rita was compelled to leave the university and was barred from doing laboratory research and practicing medicine. Rita had never firmly identified herself as Jewish; her father had notified his four children, before they could even read and write, that they were freethinkers and could choose or refuse a religion when they reached the age of 21. As the Italian newspapers continued their vicious attacks on the Jews, Rita at first experienced a kind of shock. That shock eventually gave way to a sense of liberation from “the nightmare of an anti-Semitism, all the more menacing for being invisible and yet ever present,” that had tormented her since early childhood.

“For the first time I felt pride in being Jewish and not Israelite, as we had been called in the liberal climate of my early years,” she wrote, “and though still profoundly secular, I felt a bond with those who were, like me, the victims of the lurid campaign unleashed by the Fascist press.”

In 1940, one of her classmates, Rodolfo Amprimo, prodded her into continuing her research. With the help of her brother Gino, Rita built a laboratory in her bedroom. She continued her early research on the nervous system of chick embryos. The first experiments turned out well, allowing Rita to observe the development of the nervous system. Her mentor, Giuseppe Levi, who had been dismissed from the University along with all the other Jewish professors, became Rita’s first assistant, and his students crowded into her bedroom to work and examine her experiment.

In this setting, Rita replicated an experiment by Viktor Hamburger of Washington University, which she had read of in a scientific journal. In the winter of 1942, Rita wrote up her findings, which differed from Hamburger’s, and sent them to a Belgian journal, since Italian journals then did not accept the work of Jewish scientists.

Life in Hiding

Later that year the Allies began systematically to bomb the cities of northern Italy, particularly industrialized Turin. The Levi’s, along with many other Turinese, moved to the nearby countryside. In the dining area of the small” house they rented, Rita set up her lab on a little table in the corner. She cycled from hill to hill begging farmers to sell her their I eggs, particularly the fertilized ones, | for “her babies.” In the spring, it was the burgeoning plant and animal life around her that stimulated Rita’s interest in the nervous system of different species. She came to realize how “individual cells behave in a way similar to that of living beings, how plastic and malleable is the entire nervous system.” Her awareness of this “behavior” was in marked contrast to the rigid and unchanging structure of cells described in neuroanatomy textbooks of the time.

But Rita soon found it impossible to focus on her work. In September 1943, the Germans occupied Italy, and the Levi’s found themselves fleeing for their lives. They tried crossing into Switzerland but were rebuffed by the Italian guards at the frontier. With false identity cards, they next boarded a train going south, and Rita found herself facing a former fellow student in a Fascist uniform, who asked where they were heading. In the chaos at the railway station, she said, they had boarded the wrong train; they would be getting off at the next stop, which turned out to be Florence. The group got off the train in a heavy downpour early in the morning and phoned a friend of Paola’s, who in turn took them to meet Consilia Leoncini.

With a sick father in the house and her son at the front, it was too dangerous for Consilia to rent a room to Jews. The Levis said their name was Lupani, assured her that they were Catholics from Apulia, and Consilia gave them a large room. Thereafter they spent their time filling out false identity cards, printed by the partisans, which they distributed to friends who also managed to reach Florence. With these identity cards they procured ration cards, which “sanctioned, at least temporarily, the right to life, of which we had been deprived by the Nazi invasion of Italy,” Rita would later write. Meanwhile, they all listened to the BBC every evening on the radio, discovered that Consilia was an ardent antifascist, and learned from Cosetta, Consilia’s daughter, that her mother realized they were Jews early on. At the same time, Giuseppe Levi also managed to reach Florence, where his wife and two children were staying, and he and Rita edited a new edition of his two volumes on histology.

On September 2, 1944 the British marched into Florence. Rita registered with the Allied Health Service, where she acted as both doctor and nurse. By the summer of 1945, depressed by the impotence she experienced with the service, she decided never again to practice medicine. She returned to Turin and the position of assistant professor at the university, along with Giuseppe Levi and the other Jewish professors who had survived.

She also enrolled in a biology program to bolster what she readily acknowledged as her inadequate scientific training. Less than a year later, on a summer morning in 1946, Giuseppe Levi showed Rita a letter from Viktor Hamburger, the chair of the biology department of Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. He had read Rita’s paper in the Belgian journal, noted that her conclusions differed from his, and invited her to spend a semester with him to investigate the problem further. The following year, Rita set sail for America.

Sanctuary and Sexism

Viktor Hamburger, impressed by Levi-Montalcini’s scientific acuity, enthusiasm and hard work, helped her settle into American life. In the early years at Washington University, she often visited her former classmate, the microbiologist Salvador Luria, who by then had become chairman of the biology department at Indiana University in Bloomington. During her times there, she encountered James Watson, Luria’s student, who was invariably very rude to her, “a frail foreign woman,” as she described herself at this time. In her book, she attributed his attitude to his “well-known anti-feminism.” It was an antifeminism that Rosalind Franklin, the English physical chemist, was later to experience.

In the midst of her work, Rita had nevertheless been doubtful at times about the value of experimental neuroembryological research. One afternoon, however, examining her latest series of silver-salt-impregnated chick-embryo sections, she realized that the nerve-cell populations she had been so carefully observing were subject to migrations, quotas and to the elimination of excess numbers.

Nervous systems, in short, were more accessible to investigation than she had imagined. “The revelations of that day stayed permanently inscribed in my memory,” wrote Rita, “marking not only the end of the long period of doubt and lack of faith in my research but also the sealing of a lifelong alliance between me and the nervous system.”

At the end of World War II, Rita returned to Turin and to the university to continue her work, along with the other Jewish professors who had survived. Unlike other cells in the body, such as cells of skin, nerve cells do not naturally heal or regenerate themselves when damaged. But Rita’s observations led her to the theory that there was a natural substance in the body that promoted the growth of nerves. To test her hypothesis, she grafted small fragments of two tumors close to the vessels of the membrane covering the embryonic tissues. After 10 days of incubation, she observed that the volume of the sensory and the sympathetic ganglia was much larger than normal, that sympathetic fibers had invaded the organs, some even penetrating into the veins of the host embryo. This confirmed her hypothesis about the humoral nature of the substance, which she called the “nerve-growth promoting agent,” and concluded that it could be identified by the invitro (outside the body) technique.

She secured a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation and decided to visit another friend, Hertha Meyer. Meyer had long ago set up an in-vitro culture unit at the University of Rio de Janiero. Throughout her trip, Levi-Montalcini carried in her coat pocket two white mice with implanted tumor cells nestled in a small cardboard box; with the mice she included an apple for food and drink.

Two months later, in a letter to Viktor, Rita described and illustrated an extraordinarily dense, halo-shaped outgrowth of nerve fibers from the ganglia grown close to the previously transplanted tumors. “Enchanted by the beauty of the halos, I never tired of repeating the experiment, and documented it with drawings in my numerous letters,” wrote Rita.

On her return to St. Louis, Rita began to work with Dr. Stanley Cohen, a flute-playing biochemist and newly appointed research associate in the biology department. After a year of hard work in the in-vitro culture unit that Rita set up, she and Stan discovered the qualities of the growth stimulating substance, which they named the Nerve Growth Factor (NGF). It seemed that NGF was a peptide, a macromolecule containing complexes of nucleic acids and proteins; the salivary glands of male mice, they discovered, were rich in NGF and were an inexpensive source. By designing an antiserum charting NGF’s role, they found it was essential to the differentiation and health of nerve cells. Six years later, in 1959, Rita and Stan’s intense, productive collaboration abruptly ended when Viktor Hamburger fired Cohen. It was an event that Rita writes “sounded to her like the tolling of a funeral bell.” At no time, however, was Rita critical of Viktor, the man who had brought her out of devastated Italy. Still, it was clear that the time had come for Rita to establish her independence.

An Institute of Her Own

In 1961, Rita obtained a grant from the National Science Foundation to establish in Rome a counterpart to the St. Louis laboratory. She spent six months of each year there, alternating with a colleague, the biochemist Piero Angeletti, the direction of the lab and her own work at Washington University.

By the middle 1980s, as the genetic coding for human nerve growth factor was identified, the significance of Rita’s work was recognized. In 1986 she received a Lasker award, the most prestigious science prize in the United States. Later that same year, Rita Levi-Montalcini and her former colleague, Stanley Cohen, were awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology for their discovery. She is one of only 25 women to have won in the 93-year history of the Nobel Prize; of those 25, only five have won in medicine and physiology.

As the first Italian woman to receive a Nobel Prize in science, Rita is extremely popular in her native country. Constantly featured in the Italian media, she is a role model not only for women aspiring to be scientists, but also for the elderly, for she continues to go to her lab every day. Recently, Rita used her public position to rescue from privatization the Institute of the Italian Encyclopedia Trecanni, the equivalent of the Encyclopedia Britannica, and gained full powers over it. These she handed over to a group of efficient and qualified “youngsters”; she appointed a 35-yearold to the position of chief editor of the encyclopedia. She created a biology laboratory under the supervision of the world’s leading scientists and entrusted it to 20 young scientists, who will transfer their studies and discoveries to the volume “Frontiers of Biology” in the encyclopedia, to which she has given new life – at last on a CD-Rom.

In a New York Times article entitled “Science vs. the Female Scientist,” Dr. Shirley Tilghman, professor of molecular biology at Princeton, wrote: “The culture of science evolved in a period when it was being practiced exclusively by men, and that has greatly influenced the outcome. It is a man’s game, and it continues to be played by men’s rules. Linda Wilson, president of Radcliffe and a chemist, recently suggested that the fierce rivalries and ruthless competition among scientists were incompatible with the inclusion of women and minorities in science. . . . But science is an extraordinary profession. I know of few other professions where the excitement that brought you to the field in the first place is sustained over so many years. It would be a tragedy to exclude women from all this fun.”

Rita Levi-Montalcini has no intention of being left out, even now. Along with her 200 scientific articles, several pieces on the social significance of science, and her autobiography, Rita wrote and presented “The Feminine Awakening,” an explicit expression of her feminist thinking and an overview of the women’s emancipation movement from its origin in the early 19th century to 1970. By 1979 she had reached retirement age in both the United States and Italy. Since then, she has written, “I have been allowed, if not without opposition,…to work in the capacity of a guest in the institute which I had seen born under better auspices 10 years earlier.” She continues to direct the Rome laboratory, where there are currently seven younger women doing research. One of them, Luisa Bracchi-Laudiero, told me that her grandmother, but not her mother, had always encouraged her interest in science. It was that grandmother who proudly calls her “my little Levi-Montalcini.” The world of science is not an ideal world for a woman, but it is a radically different one. And for Rita Levi-Montalcini, science continues to be pure joy.

Anthropologist RUBY ROHRLICH PH. D. has authored numerous papers on women. She is currently working on a book, Scientists as Survivors: From Ashes into the Light.