Heroes of ScienceRita Levi-Montalcini is Chicken Woman, a superhero of science. Like all crusaders her life was richly eccentric and not quite devoid of controversy.

Until her very recent sad passing she held the mantle of oldest living Nobel laureate, and also best dressed. Her stellar career born of singular determination forged an entire discipline in embryology and contributed to our understanding of normal developmental growth as well as abnormal growth typified by tumour development

Given the political and practical hurdles this little lady of science contended with for her muscle-bound career, the rest of us with easy lives should have at least three Nobels tucked away in our closet.

Like all the Serpent’s Heroes of Science, it is not just about the gilded accolades, but about the hard road to that success. For this reason Rita Levi-Montalcini is our Hero of Science for January.


Rita Levi-Montalcini

Possession of a womb is no longer the once acceptable excuse for lack of professional success. Even Rita herself would be in agreement with this. Scientific suffrage has come a long way since her prime. Yes motherly women still must take time for baby production and reality television, but relative to previous generations you girls get it pretty damn easy.

For one thing you no longer contend with fathers and husbands who refuse to school you, or disallow you a tertiary education.

Ow! Yes, yes, I know! Gee thanks, say all the women, whoopdie-doo. I don’t need permission from YOU for my education.

Hang on, don’t burn your bra just yet. Even half a generation ago the man of the house would be loathe to ‘allow’ his wife to monetarily support the family, which is why all our parents are divorced, citing ‘irreconcilable differences‘ i.e. they hate each other.

Times have changed. The Serpent would be overjoyed if his hissing wife brought home all the bread, and the bacon … and the eggs … then cooked breakfast … and did the dishes.

Emasculation? Who cares. Carve away, I say. Slice and dice. Lop it off. Such is the modern Western way.

But back when poor old Rita was growing up in Turin, Italy, a scientific career for a woman was no life at all. Academic pursuits were more luxury than life, and thus were the domain of the well-heeled indulgents. If Heidi of the Hills (insert any semi-reality TV queen) was born in 1909, would she have engaged in the pursuit of knowledge, with her beauty years finger-deep in chicken embryo?

Fortunately for Rita her father was not an unreasonable man and eventually after many tantrums and closed doors, in 1936 she graduated from medical school. But two years later the fascist leader of Italy, fat-faced Benito Mussolini, instated his “Manifesto per la Difesa della Razza“, a declaration for the defence of the race, which prevented non-Aryans (mainly Jews) from holding professional or academic positions.

Rita sought academic refuge where nobody would possibly think to find her … Belgium.

But World War II had the nasty habit of shadowing her, wherever she went, even Brussels.

In 1940 on the eve of yet another German invasion, Rita once more took flight. She escaped to the safety of discriminatory fascist Italy.

Rita writes in her Nobel biography:

I then decided to build a small research unit at home and installed it in my bedroom. My inspiration was a 1934 article by Viktor Hamburger reporting on the effects of limb extirpation in chick embryos”.


Rockin’ Rita

Following threat of racial extermination and professional discrimination most well-to-do victims might court themselves of a nice military type and develop a secret Barolo or Barburesco addiction.

                      Not our Rita.

She converted her bedroom into a makeshift illegal secret laboratory à la mode de Bat Cave … No wonder Chicken Woman never married.

Chick embryos and amore make for fowl bed mates, as broken egg shells can be so perilous to naked flesh.

Just to be clear, creating your own laboratory in those days was no simple task. You could not order a batch of plastic ware and pipettes online from BD. A career in science required a particular aptitude for adaptation. This included the need to alter household items into lab reagents and precise equipment.

I imagine Chicken Woman used her knickers for filtration and the pizza oven to incubate her eggs.

Crucially for her career it was this period in her life when she was fortunate enough to work alongside Italy’s most famous histologist Giuseppe Levi, who was subsequently responsible for the tutelage of three Nobel prize winners. Under his instruction Rita mastered the art of silver staining her chick embryo nerve cells such that they could be more accurately visualised. This was crucial for her later Nobel prize winning experiments on isolated nerve cells.

Then in 1941 under a campaign of Allied carpet bombing Rita had to pack up her bedroom shenanigans and move to the relative safety of the countryside. This was repeated when in 1943 the Germans invaded Italy. That time she fled south to Florence. Such is the life of people under a government that treats allegiances like table tennis.

All that moving about cannot have helped the maintenance of consistent experimental practice. Nevertheless Rita persevered with her mad chicken science and eventually the war ended. Mussolini’s dead body was ceremonially hanged upside down at a petrol station. In celebration she returned to an academic posting in her home of Turin.

Mussolini - second from left

Benito Mussolini – second from left

With nobody left to chase her around Europe or racially vilify her, and not content with contentment Rita soon moved on to Washington University in the U.S. to study with that long admired contemporary of Ronald McDonald, the German Professor Hamburger.

Under Viktor Hamburger, and free of bombs and fascists, Rita could focus her work. Her principle research question was the same as it had ever been. She was determined to understand how nerves are able to grow into a budding limb during embryogenesis. Ultimately it was here in the U.S. that she would discover the factor responsible for this process, nerve growth factor (NGF). This work would eventually make her and Stanley Cohen famous enough to share the 1986 Nobel prize in …

… Physiology or Medicine “for their discoveries of growth factors.

It was and still is somewhat contentious that neither Levi nor the Hamburger were ever recognised by the Nobel committee for their obvious contributions to this work.

No doubt Rita spent her life trying to aid humanity. From her time as an Allied doctor in wartime refugee camps, to her later efforts to emancipate the working women of the world through the Rita Levi-Montalcini Foundation, which has sponsored thousands of African female scientists, and throughout her career as a researcher, her contribution to human health and to the plight of women in science is immeasurable.

However, there are those with long memory who might wonder if she is not a little Villain of Science.

Breakfast at Rita's

Breakfast at Rita’s

While the truth may never be known, sufferers of Guillain-Barré syndrome who received a drug called Cronassial, a ganglioside isolated from cow brain, might yet consider her so. Cronassial was marketed by Fidia, the Italian drug company that paid Rita to be its spokesperson.

Guillain-Barré syndrome can be a devastating disease that destroys the peripheral nervous system, sometimes leading to paralysis. It is believed that an auto immune response to the ganglioside component of Cronassial was the trigger.

When well meaning scientists like Rita advocate the use of a drug that ends up harming those it is meant to help, they might be forgiven. Medication-induced side-effects can take years or decades to manifest. However, when Cronassial was withdrawn from European markets in the wake of an emerging scandal, Fidia, with our heroin the Chicken Woman on the pay role, pushed for the continuation of sales within Italy for another decade.

How many developed Guillain-Barré syndrome as a result of yet another money-grubbing and corrupt Pharma company’s actions? We don’t know.

Ultimately we must assume that corporations, whether they are in the business of human health or not, are psychopathic enough in nature that they will do everything and anything that leads to an increase in their share price. The only moral boundaries they will not cross are those that will have repercussions for that market value. From this perspective, we should expect such behaviour. Thereby one might argue the true blame for this tragedy lies not with Fidia, but the Italian government. Fidia acted in the interest of shareholders.

Don’t punish a tiger for wanting to eat bloody meat. That’s what it does.

The Italian Ministry of Health, which purportedly was lobbied by Fidia, are supposed to act on behalf of the people of Italy. They clearly failed in that regard.

If the accusations aimed at Rita are entirely accurate then there is no refuting that this is evidence of Villainy of Science. However, if she was paid by Fidia, then she was doing her job. Furthermore, it is possible that she endorsed Cronassial treatment prior to knowledge of the risks, and only subsequently was she kept out of the loop.

But … somebody of her intellect and education must have understood the science behind the retraction of the drug elsewhere in Europe.

Worse yet were the accusations of Swedish publication Dagens Neuhatter. In 1986 they published an article condemning the Nobel committee of succumbing to Fidia bribes, bribes that were to push for the Nobel prize to go to Rita Levi-Montalcini. These charges were supported by the claims of a disgraced former Italian health minster, Duilio Poggiolini. The accusations were never proven. Critically though, some say they were never investigated. If true, Rita would mostly likely have been ignorant of such corruption, as she claims.

Prizes aside, should Rita have publicly campaigned against Fidia’s drug Cronassial?


But she probably would have been strangled by whatever legal chains Fidia had draped around her neck at the time, or maybe she’d have ended up sleeping with a horse’s head.

Still …

If this possibly sordid chapter in her life is all too much for a Hero of Science, then perhaps we can divide Rita in two. Young Rita Levi-Montalcini, persecuted for being an Italian Jew and subject to the whims of being a woman in War-era science was undoubtedly a Hero of Science. Rita the socialist politician, the Italian Senator for Life, and drug company spokeswoman will be either a Hero or a Villain of Science depending on your own political and ethical standing—as always.

Chicken woman

Chicken woman

Alternatively perhaps we can conclude that just like in the comics, Heroes must have a dark side. Spiderman, Batman, Chicken Woman, they are representations of human nature and the internal primal battle of your own psychology. Even boring goody-two-shoes Superman had to get his evil quiet time chillin’ in his Fortress of Solitude.

Who knows what went down in that icy man cave … I expect there was a lot of semi-naked high-speed internet viewing, while draped immodestly in just his cape and a pair of flashy red socks.

Regardless, had there been no Nobel prize, Rita’s discovery and characterisation of nerve growth factor would still have led to an explosion in our understanding of normal developmental biology and embryology, but also our understanding of abnormal growth such as that which might occur during tumourigenesis. In fact it was only through a series of experiments in which she co-cultured tumours with isolated chick embryo ganglia, and observed that sarcomas can produce copious quantities of the mystery factor, that she was ultimately able to isolate, identify and characterise nerve growth factor.

Politics cannot dent her discoveries.

Incredibly Rita continued to study the very same subject matter throughout her career. From those humble beginnings in her underground bedroom laboratory right up until the year of her death, Rita was still singularly focused on the protein factors that stimulate nerve growth.

Her first English language publication was entitled “A nerve growth-stimulating factor isolated from sarcomas 37 and 180″ and incredibly her final contribution in 2012 was in PNAS and entitled “Nerve growth factor regulates axial rotation during early stages of chick embryo development“.

A 2009 Nature news article celebrating Rita’s 100th birthday quotes her as saying:

“I am not afraid of death — I am privileged to have been able to work for so long. If I die tomorrow or in a year, it is the same — it is the message you leave behind you that counts, and the young scientists who carry on your work.”

Rita Levi-Montalcini died with 2012. She was 103.

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photo credits: Señoritafeito , liquidnight , malias,  via photopin cc


5 thoughts on “Heroes of Science – Rita Levi-Montalcini

  1. An excellent piece, Serpent. What an amazing life and you situate it so wittily. Entertaining and informative. Important. Keep up the great work – you do this so well. BJ

  2. Really enjoyed reading this one, somehow the villainy adds to the interest, a fascinating and mixed life. And publishing papers when she was 102/103, wow. She must be the oldest published scientist for sure!

    Great writing Serpent, love your style 🙂

    • Hi Dr. PlayDNA – thanks for suggesting Rita as a Science Hero. She was quite easy to write about really. I suppose if you live beyond 100 there will always be some stories. The one story I didn’t mention was the one about how she carried some experimental mice in her handbag to South America!
      I’m not sure if she is the oldest for publications … surely she is, at least in science. I’ll have to look into that. Glad you liked it. Cheers.

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