Wednesday, 27 May 2009

The Pope meets the oldest Nobel Prize winner, Rita Levi Montalcini, aged 100!

There is a rather inspiring story on Zenit today that I have to share:

"Benedict XVI received in audience Monday the oldest living Nobel Prize winner.

Rita Levi-Montalcini, who turned 100 years old in April, won the Nobel Prize in medicine in 1986. She received it together with colleague Stanley Cohen for their discovery of nerve growth factor.

The Vatican press office reported the audience, but gave no details of the visit.

The scientist is a native of Turin, Italy. During World War II she accepted an invitation to study at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. She remained at the university for 30 years, becoming a full professor in 1958.

In 2001, she was named a senator with life tenure in the Italian Senate.That same year she founded the Levi-Montalcini Foundation, which aims to give educational opportunities to African women. The project began in Ethiopia, and has since spread to 10 countries."

An extraordinary life

If anything the Zenit story undersells Dr Montalcini's extraordinary life.

Born to a Jewish family, she was inspired to become a doctor by the death of a friend from cancer. Her father initially opposed her going to University on the grounds that it would interfere with her duties as a wife and mother. She persisted however and graduated from medical school in Italy in 1936.

Her research career was cut short by anti-Jewish legislation under Mussolini, and so set up a home laboratory from where she laid the groundwork for much of her subsequent research. She had to flee three times during the war, living for a time underground in Florence before being hired by the allies as a doctor and nurse in a refugee camp, after she fled the advancing Nazis. In 1947 she accepted an academic position in the United States, and became a full professor in 1958, the year of the picture below.


From 1962 onwards she divided her time between Rome and the United States. She retired in 1979, and was awarded the Nobel prize for medicine in 1986 jointly with a colleague for her work on nerve growth factor.

In 2001 she was made a Senator for Life in the Italian Parliament, where she has been a lively supporter of the centre-left. According to the Wikipedia, though hard of hearing and nearly blind, she recently vowed to remain a political force in her country. On her recent birthday, she was feted with a party at Rome's City Hall.

And now, an audience with the Pope...

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