My rating: 4 of 5 stars
My Italian heroine, Rita Levi-Montalcini, is 102 years old today so what better time could there be to review this book about her? La Clessidra della Vita di Rita Levi- Montalcini is not a chronological biography: it is what it says it is, an "hourglass" view of this great lady's life and achievements through themes such as her closeness to her artist sister Paola Levi-Montalcini, her thoughts on science, women's rights, world peace and the internet and, most importantly, her rapport with and inspirational effect upon young people.
Born in Turin to a Sephardic Jewish family, Rita Levi-Montalcini decided early on that she wanted to go to medical school. She overcame her father's opposition, which was based on a traditional view of a woman's role, and graduated from the Turin Medical School in 1936 - just in time to be barred from her professional work by the Mussolini government.
Undaunted, she set up a laboratory in her home and in 1943 she fled, with her family, to Florence, where she set up a second laboratory. She returned to Turin in 1945 and was invited to work at the Washington University in St Louis, where she was made a full Professor in 1958. She returned to work in Rome in 1961. In 1986 she received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for her work with Stanley Cohen on nerve growth factor.
In 2009 she told a Times interviewer that she had never married because she had not wanted to be "dominated" in the way that her mother was and that she puts her longevity down to getting up at 5 am, working hard to keep her brain active and eating only one meal a day, at lunchtime.
In this book we learn that this modest lady attributes her success in scientific research to trusting her intuition and knowing her limits. Never afraid to speak her mind or to change it, in 1998 Rita Levi-Montalcini called upon the UN to liberalise drug use in order to free young people from what she calls the "drug war" . She now believes, though, that the use of soft drugs can lead to dependence on hard ones and has thus modified her view somewhat. She remains interested and concerned about the problems of the young, believing that much unhappiness arises from wrong choices made during adolescence.
She also believes that genocide, violence and war are not the result of man's natural aggression but of our blind obedience to those in power. She champions a new Charter of Human Rights for all states and in this the banning of the atomic bomb and further weapons of destruction of any kind, plus a commitment to improving the quality of life everywhere, rather than only in certain areas, would be fundamental.
The governments of the world would do well to listen to the words of Rita Levi-Montalcini. Meanwhile, if you read Italian and would like to know more about her, I recommend this book.
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The Vice President of the Italian Senate, Vannino Chiti, has sent a congratulatory message to Rita Levi-Montalcini, thanking her for her commitment to science and to scientific and educational institutions and for being a valuable role-model and example for young people.