Today, I had the honor of giving the remarks at the dedication of Rita Levi-Montalcini’s star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame. Joe Edwards presided and there was a dixieland band. They played St. Louis Blues just before the ceremony. It was a blustery spring day in our city, but there was still a good group of Rita’s followers there. The picture above of Rita talking to a colleague outside of Graham Chapel is my favorite.
Here are my remarks:
Thanks, Joe. And thanks for all you do for the Loop and St. Louis.
It is an extraordinary honor to be here today to dedicate the star of Rita Levi-Montalcini on the St. Louis Walk of Fame. As Joe said, I have the great privilege to be the Rita Levi-Montalcini Distinguished University Professor. It is a big responsibility to carry the name of such a giant, but also a lot of fun.
Not too long ago, I was serving on a panel at a well-known university in Cambridge, MA and met another professor there who was a major figure in biomedicine. We exchanged business cards; he looked at mine carefully, and then looked up and said, “Rita Levi-Montalcini – that’s pretty cool.”
When I was named to this professorship, my dear colleague Sharon Stahl gave me this wonderful book about Rita, which is for young people who are interested in learning about women in medicine. There are a lot of amazing things in here, and the cover has Rita with her microscope, which – as I will say in a minute – is a very important image.
Rita and I have something in common, which will surprise many of you, in that we are both Italian. You may wonder how someone like me who has not one but TWO English last names can be Italian, but my mother’s parents were born in Fiero di Primiero, Italy, and came to the US in the 1920s. Primiero is in the highlands of the Italian Alps, which will become important in this story. Needless to say, my Italian family was suspicious of my mother marrying an American of English descent who they used to call “inglese”.
In 1936, Mussolini issued the “Manifesto per la Difesa della Razza”, signed by 10 Italian scientists. When she described this decree in her Nobel address, Rita put the word scientist in quotes. The manifesto led to laws barring Jews from their universities, so Rita was barred from her laboratory and clinic despite graduating summa cum laude from Turin in Medicine and Surgery. She at first went into hiding in Belgium, but went back to Italy after Mussolini declared that Italy would not join the war.
It was a horrible time for her to abandon science as she had developed a breakthrough technique for looking at living tissue under a microscope. That’s why this book shows her on the cover with her microscope.
In Italy during the war, she practiced medicine for those who could not get a doctor because of the political situation. She could only diagnose and advise because Jews couldn’t write prescriptions.
A colleague encouraged her to set up a secret laboratory, which she did in her bedroom. She was able to get chicken eggs that people thought were to feed her family. She secretly accumulated the instruments she needed. She wrote the following about that time:
‘After war had been declared, civilian trains were taken over for troop transportation, and these livestock trains, or cattle cars, were used for civilians, for short journeys in the provinces. While enjoying the view and the air which smelled of hay, I was distractedly reading an article that Giuseppe Levi had given to me two years before.’
The article was written by embryologist Viktor Hamburger who was working at Washington University.
It takes a true scientist to read a journal article on a hay ride.
After reading Hamburger’s paper, she went back to her secret laboratory and did many of the experiments that would lead to the discovery of nerve growth factor.
She said of those times:
“I often asked myself how we could have dedicated ourselves with such enthusiasm to solving this small neuroembryological problem while German armies were advancing throughout Europe, spreading destruction and death wherever they went and threatening the very survival of Western civilization. The answer lies in the desperate and partially unconscious desire of human beings to ignore what is happening in situations where full awareness might lead one to self destruction.”
In 1942, when the British Royal Air Force bombed Turin, Rita fled north to the highlands at the foot of the Italian Alps, which is where my grandparents were born. She wouldn’t have met them, but she might have met some of my family members who did not move to America before the war.
When the war ended, Rita returned to Turin, and shortly thereafter, a letter arrived that would change her life. Viktor Hamburger wrote to ask her to come to St. Louis to work with him in the department of zoology. She was planning to come for one year, but ended up spending three decades here. In 1986, she shared the Nobel prize with Stanley Cohen.
And in 2014, Mark Wrighton bestowed on me the extraordinary status of being the Rita Levi-Montalcini Professor, which was a great honor for me but also, more importantly, a way to honor Rita as there will now always be a Rita Levi-Montalcini Professor long after I’m gone.
And today, Joe Edwards enshrines Rita most appropriately in the St. Louis Walk of Fame.
My only regret is that my grandmother, Carlotta Bernardin of Fiera di Primiero, never got to see me with an Italian name on my business card. It would have set her mind at ease after her daughter married an inglese.
Thank you all for letting me share something about Rita.