Rita Levi-Montalcini this week become the first Nobel Prize-winner to reach the age of 100. And her longevity and mental vigor is said to be attributed to daily doses of nerve growth factor (NGF), the discovery that made her name.
Dr Levi-Montalcini, who was born in 1909, was awarded the 1986 Nobel Prize for Medicine with American, Stanley Cohen, for their research into NGF: the proteins and amino-acids which enable the cells of the nervous system to grow and take on specialised tasks.
Italian-born Dr Levi-Montalcini, a neurologist and development biologist, still works every day at the European Brain Research Institute, which she founded in Rome.
She said: “If I’m not mistaken,” she said, “I can say my mental capacity is greater than when I was 20 because it has been enriched by so many experiences, in the same way that my curiosity and desire to be close to those who suffer has not diminished.”
Dr Levi-Montalcini is reputed to take daily doses of NGF, which was discovered in 1979, in the form of eye drops.
NGF is believed to have an important role in the peripheral nervous system, but then it emerged that it has a very important role in the brain and helps preserve neuron integrity.
The Italian Government recently granted her research institute 500,000 (£448,000) to continue its work.
Born in Turin , Dr Levi-Montalcini was from a cultured Jewish family in Turin in 1909, the daughter of an electrical engineer and a painter. Defying her father’s wishes, she went to medical school and graduated in 1936.
She immediately enrolled as a postgraduate, but in the same year Mussolini published his Manifesto for the Defence of the Race, followed in 1938 by new laws banning “inferior races” from education and forcing her out of university.
She fled to Belgium to continue her studies, but the imminent invasion of the Nazis in 1940 forced her to return to Turin, where she constructed a laboratory in her bedroom. When the Allies bombed the city in 1941, she fled to the countryside and built another lab in a country cottage.
Then the German invasion of Italy in 1943 sent her fleeing to Florence, where she lived incognito until the war’s end, working as a nurse and doctor among the disease-ridden refugees. After the war she accepted an invitation to study in America, where in the subsequent decades her most important work was done. She only returned to Italy full time after she retired in 1977.
Dr Levi-Montalcini was made a senator for life in 2001 and from 2005 to 2007 she played a vital role in supporting the centre-left government of Romano Prodi, which had a wafer-thin Senate majority and needed every vote to stay afloat. Despite her age, Dr Levi-Montalcini never failed it, earning the wrath of the right-wing opposition in the process.