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Chair of Brain@McGill remembers Rita Levi-Montalcini

Published: 18 Jan 2013

A McGill tribute to a "Grand Dame of Science"

It is with much sadness that I communicate to the McGill neuroscience community the news of the death of Rita Levi-Montalcini on December 31, 2012. She was the discoverer of the first trophic protein in the nervous system, Nerve Growth Factor (NGF). For this seminal discovery she was given the 1986 Nobel Prize in Medicine. The discovery of NGF opened a new era in Neuroscience research. A number of such factors were subsequently found to govern the survival and differentiation of subsets of neurons during development and maintain specific neuronal phenotypes in the adult life.

Rita Levi-Montalcini was an exceptional individual and extraordinary role model for young, aspiring scientists and women in particular. Her life is briefly described in the New York Times obituary. The New York Times article is illustrated with a photograph of Rita Levi-Montalcini wearing the McGill gown with which I had the pleasure of "hooding" her at a ceremony hosted by Sapienza Università di Roma in February 2011 when McGill granted her with an honorary doctorate in science. In such occasion our Provost, Prof. Anthony C. Masi, made a moving tribute and remarked that this was the first time in McGill’s 190-year history that the University had conferred an honorary doctorate on foreign soil – and only the second time that such a degree had been awarded off campus. The first was in 1944, when Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt were honoured in Quebec City.

Rita was moved by the McGill recognition and reflecting her appreciation to McGill she sent in September 2011 a warm salutation to our young trainees of the Integrated Program in Neuroscience. This salutation read as follows: "As an Honorary McGillian, I would like to send my greetings to the new generation of McGill Neuroscience trainees in occasion of the Third Annual Meeting of the Integrated Program in Neurosciences. Good luck with your studies, continuing in the strong McGill tradition of major research discoveries."

Rita was a "Grand Dame of Science" with an unquenchable passion for research who also had multiple cultural and social interests. Besides science she supported social causes such as promoting the education of women in Africa through the Rita Levi-Montalcini Foundation. She knew about hardships and about overcoming life obstacles. She studied medicine against her family’s wishes but the best example of her tenacity was the continuation of her research in clandestine manner when because of the fascist "racial laws" during the Second World War she was banned from the university.

The reading of the Nature 458, 564-567 (2009) article "Neuroscience, 100 years of Rita" can provide an excellent overlook of her scientific life. I would also like to invite our McGill trainees in the Neurosciences to read her inspiring autobiography, In Praise of Imperfection, a most compelling autobiographic narrative of her personal challenges and the emotional context of participating in major scientific discoveries.

The passing of Rita closes a gigantic chapter of neuroscience. Her discoveries have inspired me throughout my career and many McGillians and Neuroscientists worldwide. My family and I had the privilege of a close friendship with Rita spanning over 30 years. It is with great sorrow that I say today "good bye old friend."

Dr. Claudio Cuello
Chair of the Brain@McGill Committee

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