Prof. Rita Levi-Montalcini, at 98 the oldest living Nobel Prize laureate, is arriving in Israel on Tuesday. Levi-Montalcini is part of a delegation from the Italian National Academy of Sciences visiting the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa as a show of support for Israel.
Levi-Montalcini, a neurologist who shared the Nobel in Physiology or Medicine (with colleague Stanley Cohen) in 1986 for her work in growth factors and cell biology, was named a member of the Italian senate for life seven years ago.
Technion President Prof. Yitzhak Apeloig called the visit was a "great demonstration of support for the Israel Academy of Sciences in general and the Technion is particular. [Levi-Montalcini arrives] specially in days such as these, when voices are heard in Europe [calling] to boycott Israeli scientists."
He added that his institute was pleased to host "such important Italian friends and colleagues led by Prof. Levi-Montalcini."
Last year, Apeloig awarded her with a special citation in Rome that was attended by Italy's president and Prof. Aharon Ciechanover, one of the two Technion scientists who received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2004.
Levi-Montalcini and her twin sister, Paola, were born on April 22, 1909 in Turin, Italy to a Sephardic family. Her parents Adamo Levi and Adele Montalcini were an electrical engineer and mathematician and a painter, respectively. Levi-Montalcini chose to study medicine at the University of Turin Medical School after watching a close family friend die of cancer - despite the objections of her father, who claimed becoming a doctor would clash with the duties of a wife and mother.
Her academic career was halted by Mussolini's 1938 edicts barring Jews from academic and professional careers. During World War II, she conducted experiments from a laboratory in her bedroom, studying genetics and the growth of nerve fibers in chicken embryos, which laid the groundwork for much of her later research. She and her family escaped to Florence in 1943, treating refugees with infectious diseases, and returned to Turin in 1945 with the end of the war.
A year later, Levi-Montalcini accepted an invitation to study for a semester at Washington University in St. Louis, where she remained for three decades. There, she worked on isolating nerve growth factor in cancerous tissue that had rapid nerve cell growth. In 1962, she set up a research unit in Rome and divided her time between that city and St. Louis. From 1969 to 1978, she also held the position of director of Rome's Institute of Cell Biology of the Italian National Council of Research, and upon retiring in 1979, she became a guest professor at the institute.