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Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Rita Levi-Montalcini dies, but not anti-Semitism

 (by Presidenza della Repubblica Italiana)
Rita Levi-Montalcini, Einstein and numerous other Jewish scientists (without whom many advances we benefit from today might not exist) are now dead.  However, anti-Semitism is still very much alive.

Although Jews have lived in Italy for more than two thousand years, Rita Levi-Montalcini (who was born into an Italian Jewish family from Turin on April 22, 1909) experienced anti-Semitic jibes almost until the day she died at age 103.  Wikipedia reports that she "was frequently insulted in public, and on blogs, since 2006, by both center-right senators such as Francesco Storace, and far-right bloggers for her age and Jewish origins."

Proud of these origins, Levi-Montalcini had been "present in Rome's main synagogue, during the official visit of Pope Benedict XVI" on January 17, 2010.  She had much else to be proud of as well.  Her list of stellar accomplishments is lengthy.  It includes the discovery of nerve growth factor (which yielded her and Jewish-American colleague Stanley Cohen the 1986 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine) and the identification of an important modulator (palmitoylethanolamide) of the mast cell (which led to breakthroughs "in treating chronic pain and neuro-inflammation").

These neurological accomplishments are even more astounding in light of historical difficulties that she had to contend with.  Her brilliant beginning as the assistant to neurohistologist Giuseppe Levi was cut short in 1938 due to Benito Mussolini's "introduction of laws barring Jews from academic and professional careers."  A less-stalwart individual might have chosen a different path at that point, but Levi-Montalcini (no blood relation to Giuseppe Levi) simply went underground.  She weathered World War II by conducting secret experiments "from a home laboratory, studying the growth of nerve fibers in chicken embryos, which laid the
groundwork for much of her later research."      

Copyright January 2, 2013 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

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