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Pioneering female doctor leaves behind an inspiring legacy

January 3rd, 2013
05:59 PM ET

By Lucky Gold & Richa Naik, CNN

When Rita Levi-Montalcini was born in Italy in 1909, girls were expected to marry and have children, but Levi-Montalcini wanted to be a doctor.

Despite her father’s opposition, she graduated from medical school, ready to devote her life to science and research.

However Levi-Montalcini, who was Jewish, was banned from pursuing that dream when Benito Mussolini and the fascists came to power. But that didn’t stop her.

She turned her bedroom into a laboratory, risking her life to conduct research in secret. Levi-Montalcini’s solitary work led her to see what other scientists had missed – a crucial factor that allows cells to grow and develop.

After the war, she came to America to continue her research, creating a new way of understanding conditions like cancer and Alzheimer’s.

In 1986 Levi-Montalcini shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. She continued to work even after her hundredth birthday, making her the oldest living Nobel Laureate.

“At one hundred, I have a mind that is superior, thanks to experience, than when I was twenty,” she said.

Rita Levi-Montalcini died this week at the age of 103. She never married or had children, but leaves behind a legacy of courage and discovery.

Filed under:  Imagine a World • Latest Episode
soundoff (12 Responses)
  1. Helen ekpo

    What a woman of courage

    January 3, 2013 at 6:25 pm | Reply
  2. Nathalie

    My mom would have loved this story. She passed away two years ago, at the age of 85, and was herself a doctor and a pioneer in her field. Fortunately, her father encouraged her a lot, he was so proud of his two daughters who became a doctor and a lawyer, respectively, and his son, a notary. I admire this other lady who just passed away a lot as well. I am sure my mom and her will enjoy chatting up there in paradise!

    January 3, 2013 at 6:38 pm | Reply
  3. beyond the arc

    Wow! That's human spirit, self-determination, the I Am of God within us. She might have passed, but will never die. Blessings.

    January 3, 2013 at 8:59 pm | Reply
  4. mcalleyboy

    Wonder how many more stories like this that we don't know about?

    January 3, 2013 at 11:34 pm | Reply
  5. Adaku Eluwa

    I admire this woman of courage and self determination; her legacy will forever live on

    January 4, 2013 at 4:50 am | Reply
  6. akindiya azeez

    i love that woman but she don't have to leave a life without childern

    January 4, 2013 at 5:38 am | Reply
  7. marina

    Not only was she a great scientist, she was also a kind person, never arrogant, never full of herself.
    she was an onorary member of the Italian Senate, now that she has gone the IQ and the moral standard of the Italian Parliament has dropped dramatically.
    Her last battles were for the young scientists, for the future of scientific research in Italy.
    She will be dearly missed by many young and notsoyoung people, she was a model of engagement for Science and for Italy.

    January 4, 2013 at 5:54 am | Reply
  8. sandrapeets

    Reblogged this on sandrapeets.

    January 4, 2013 at 8:56 am | Reply
  9. Kgathatso Tlhakudi

    I am writing from the southern part of the African continent. This is a story I will certainly be sharing with my daughters, as it shows that patriarchy knows no boundaries nor cultural backgrounds. My mother was denied an opportunity to beyond primary school as it was felt then that educating a woman was not beneficial for the family as she is going to be married off. My mother promoted education for not only her own kids but others in the family and community. Let's ensure that the work initiated by Dr Levi-Montalcin, Malala and others of empowering women through education is vigorously pursued by us all.

    January 4, 2013 at 11:38 am | Reply
  10. clif misier

    i've read her book 'old age doesn't exist' [along with articles about growth factors in endocrinology] & considered that the mind has no boundaries & no age [as the biological corp] :the spirit can stay forever young, as long as you stay open for new ideas & constantly change your view & opinion; mind can adapt to a ever-changing world as long as you allow your brain to assimilate new knowledge & reconsider previous ideas. we won't be 'old' as long as we incorpporate 'young' fresh thoughts into our mind: [the spirit s] 'wider than the sky' [G.Edelman, another neurobiologist- nobel laureate]

    January 4, 2013 at 12:41 pm | Reply
  11. Tom Miller

    I much prefer recognition of people with great minds then stories of idiots with celebrity status.

    January 5, 2013 at 6:29 am | Reply
  12. Nana


    January 7, 2013 at 11:26 am | Reply

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