IN PRAISE OF IMPERFECTION: My Life and Work by Rita Levi-Montalcini

IN PRAISE OF IMPERFECTION: My Life and Work

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Levi-Montalcini shared the 1986 Nobel Prize in Medicine with Stanley Cohen for their discovery of protein growth factors, work at the forefront of developmental biology. The story of her life is rich and well-told, bearing comparison with the recent and excellent autobiography of Francois Jacob, The Statue Within (p. 180). Now in her late 70s, Levi-Montalcini, like Jacob, grew up in a family of professional urban Jews--Jacob in Paris, Levi in Turin. Both endured hardships during WW II: he was wounded while serving with the Free French; she suffered an anti-Semitism that stripped her of her career and threatened her life. But there are major differences between the two lives as well. The Victorian climate of Levi's childhood all but precluded careers for women--especially in science. When a beloved servant died of stomach cancer, however, Rita approached her father with the idea of becoming a doctor and he reluctantly agreed. With private tutoring, she passed her qualifying exams and began studies at the Institute of Anatomy. Increasing anti-Semitism forced her to leave the university, but she was persuaded to set up a laboratory, first at home, and then at a safer country retreat. An early assignment to count nerve cells induced in her a fascination with how nerve cell fibers develop and reach the tissues they innervate. There were narrow escapes in the latter war years, including a period of hiding out in Florence, but eventually liberation came and the ability to resume her research. An invitation to work at Washington Univ. in St. Louis led to new contacts, collaborations, and pivotal experiments that established that a protein factor circulating in the embryonic bloodstream greatly enhances the growth of certain nerve cells and their fiber extensions. In due course, Nerve Growth Factor was isolated and analyzed. Today Levi-Montalcini (who never married, but whose close friendships with colleagues and students are warmly detailed here) works at Rome's Laboratory of Cell Biology, which she founded. Levi-Montalcini is the interview subject in the March issue of Omni magazine--which should attract readers to her fascinating life's story.

Pub Date: April 18th, 1988
Publisher: Basic Books