In my field, a great deal of important virology and immunology research was done initially with chick embryos (especially by Sir Macfarlane Burnet, as I described in Sentinel Chickens: What birds tell us about our health and our world) but I was only peripherally aware of Levi-Montalcini’s work with developing chicks until, Where is Isfahan Iran? seeking to acknowledge her achievements at the beginning of my Bergamo lecture, I looked into her career more closely.
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As often happens when I read about the lives and contributions of leading biologists of an earlier era, I find a record of dedication and intellectual clarity based on simple, elegant experimentation and insight. She was continuing a great Italian tradition. The science of embryology started in the seventeenth century when, working in Bologna, Marcello Malpighi described the progression he saw when he examined chick embryos at different stages of development.
Early vertebrate evolution followed common pathways for birds and for us and, even in an era where human dissection was forbidden, the allcontrolling Church of Rome could hardly object to cracking open hens’ eggs. Remarkably, some religious fundamentalists believe that embryology, in the words of US Republican Congressman (2007-15) Paul Broun, ‘lies straight from the pit of hell’! Given that such research just describes what’s actually there, it’s hard to comprehend a mindset that finds the most obvious realities of biology to be obnoxious. Remarkably, Broun is a medical doctor!
After the liberation of northern Italy in April 1945, Levi-Montalcini volunteered her medical services to help the allies in Florence. She then moved to the United States to continue her focus on nerve growth in the research group led by eminent émigré German/Jewish developmental biologist Viktor Hamburger at the Washington University of St Louis. Isfahan Iran Map There she also began her professional association with biochemist Stan Cohen, her co-Nobel Prizewinner. Appointed as full professor at Washington University in 1958, Levi-Montalcini was, by 1961, directing the Research Centre for Neurobiology in Rome. Thereafter, while continuing her US collaborations, she saw out her research career in Italy. Washington University and Vanderbilt (in Nashville) are, incidentally, the two closest, major research universities to St Jude Children’s Research Hospital, my other (than the University of Melbourne) scientific home.
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