Yesterday the world lost one of its most extraordinary scientists when Rita Levi-Montalcini died at her home in Rome at the age of 103.
Tiny in stature but outsize in personality, Levi-Montalcini survived fascist Italy, where Jews were barred from working at universities, converting her bedroom into a makeshift lab to continue her studies on how nerves grow. Never losing her ruthless obsession with the topic, she went on to discover the molecule nerve growth factor, which won her a share of the 1986 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Most of that work was carried out in the United States.
She spent her last decades back in Italy, where she became a national heroine and was appointed Senator for Life. In parliament she made sparks by blocking legislation that might have been unfriendly towards research. She also created a foundation to support scientific education for women in Africa and a Rome-based research institute called the European Brain Research Institute Rita Levi-Montalcini. That institute was opened to great fanfare in 2005, but inappropriate management meant that it did not develop into the vibrant legacy she had hoped to leave behind. It now struggles to keep going on a shoestring budget.
Her 100th birthday was marked with national celebrations (see this Nature profile feature, ‘One hundred years of Rita‘); today she lies in state at the Italian Senate. Her funeral will take place according to Jewish rites in her home city of Turin on 2 January 2013.