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“The future of the world relies on the education of women, and by appointing them as leaders”. Born in Turin in 1909, Rita Levi-Montalcini was an Italian neurologist of Jewish origins who received the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1986. After finishing her studies, she began research into the nervous system, but fled Italy as a result of Fascism under the government led by Mussolini. Following the end of World War II, she returned to Italy from Belgium, opening her own laboratory in Turin. Continuing her work, she accepted an invitation to research at Washington University (Missouri) for one semester, but stayed for thirty years, being appointed as a Professor in 1958. She discovered nerve growth factor (NGF), important for the growth, maintenance and survival of certain nerve cells, and established a Research Centre for Neurobiology in Rome in cooperation with the Italian National Research Council and Washington University. In 2001, she was named as Senator for Life by the Italian government. Rita died in 2012, at the age of 103 at her home in Rome – the first Nobel Laureate to live 100 years old. Levi-Montalcini made a great contribution not only to science, but also to society; she was a great activist for social issues such as education and the emancipation of women. She said that she had to fight her whole life to be accepted in the most exclusive of scientific environments: “Humanity is made of men and women, and it should be represented by both of them”. She always thought that women had to fight harder than men, and carry two weights: their private and their public lives. “The difference between a man and a woman is just environmental; they have the same brain, but in men its (development) was encouraged; in women has been historically repressed”. Levi-Montalcini always felt like a free woman but she grew up in a society where men were dominant and women had few opportunities – There was still a King on the throne in Italy until the 1946. She was optimistic about contemporary women’s conditions: Europe has made huge progress in the development of women in society. “In Africa – she said – women have to fight to study.” Because of this, Levi-Montalcini, together with her twin sister Paola, in 1992 created the Levi-Montalcini Foundation, to give young African girls the opportunity to study and achieve important leadership roles within society. “These girls are starving more for knowledge than for food, and they are much more determined than men: when they have the opportunity to study, they achieve great results!” Levi-Montalcini also started a campaign to involve women in Politics: “It’s just by having a female presence in government that we will begin to have equal opportunities”. Rita never married: “I am married to science… I did not feel the need to have a child, or to be attached to any man. I am happy like this. If in the past I have ever been courted by a man, I did not notice it. Love, on me has the same effect of water on ducks: I am totally waterproof”! Written by Filomena Raia.

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