Italy has lost a truly fascinating centenarian. Nobel Prize winner Rita Levi-Montalcini died at her home yesterday at age 103, leading Rome's mayor to declare the scientist's death a loss "for all of humanity." It may not be much of an exaggeration: The so-called "Lady of the Cells" faced many obstacles, reports the AP: a father who believed women should not study (she ultimately obtained a degree in medicine and surgery), a Fascist regime (Levi-Montalcini lost her neurobiology job in 1938 when Jews were banned from major professions), and the Nazis, whose 1943 invasion of Italy forced her family to flee to Florence and live underground.
But the petite woman's determination was formidable: In the face of the Fascist regime she studied chicken embryos in a makeshift lab in her bedroom. She chose not to marry or have a family—without hesitation or regret, she once said—fearing doing so would weaken her independence. She claimed to sleep no more than three hours a night, and worked well into her final years. That effort produced contributions that were just as formidable. Levi-Montalcini shared the Nobel medicine prize in 1986 with American biochemist Stanley Cohen for their groundbreaking cellular research. Her research increased the understanding of many conditions, including tumors, developmental malformations, and senile dementia.