A Remarkable Woman

Posted by Trevor on 2 January 2013 | 3 Comments

rlmBy the tenth week of gestation a baby’s brain makes an astonishing 250,000 neurons a minute. My head hurts just trying to contemplate that astonishing feat. The baby brain goes on like that until it makes around 100 billion of them.

Until the mid 1980s scientists were certain that neurons are made only while we are in the womb, and thereafter we gradually start to lose neurons as we age.

Then along came a remarkable woman. Rita Levi-Montalcini discovered nerve growth factor for which she received the Nobel prize in 1986. For scientists it changed their understanding of how the brain functions and realization that neurons are continuously remade. It has led to new research into how the factors revive damaged neurons, especially those harmed in such diseases as Alzheimer’s. For those non-scientists like me it showed that the brain is not fixed, and we can remake and renew ourselves any way we want. It is never too late to start over.

If there were ever an example of someone who understood that you are never too old to reinvent yourself, it is this inspirational lady. I was sad to read that Rita died on December 30th. She was 103 and still working daily. In one interview at her hundredth birthday, she states “ It is not enough what I did in the past – there is also the future.”

Her death got a few media mentions, but nowhere near the notices she deserves. She is one of life’s heroines and for those who have read Three Simple Steps you’ll know that I have been an avid reader of the inspiring stories of self-made men and women who fashion our world. The three steps come directly from the common traits I have noticed among them, the things that set them apart from the crowd, the same things I have used in my life for adventure and success. Control of mentality, taking quiet time and a raised sense of intuition are the three powerful behaviors I read about time and again and they are the recipe for anyone who wants to reinvent themselves. They are simple but far from easy.

Rita Levi-Montalcini was a master of mentality, and stated in one interview in Scientific American “If I had not been discriminated against or had not suffered persecution, I would never have received the Nobel Prize.”

First there was her domineering father, who didn’t believe in higher education for women. She refused to accept the stereotype, and ignored the opinions of her friends and family who felt it was undignified for a woman to want to compete in a man’s world. It was only after a long fight that she got her father’s grudging permission to go to university and study to be a doctor.

Then there were Benito Mussolini’s race laws, which ejected Jews from universities and forced her into hiding. It is not what we think that matters but how we react. How did she react? She set up a laboratory in a bedroom! How she managed to continue her studies in this situation and while bombs were falling is a study in mentality control.

And after that there was the scientific establishment, which refused to believe in the existence of nerve growth factor. She was renowned for her exceptional intuition, something several of her peers wrote about. All of her early work ended in dead ends, but so strong was her feeling that neurons can regenerate that she ignored the criticism and ridicule and just kept searching for the answer. Her work involved research on fertilized eggs at a time when they were a scarce commodity. To get the eggs required long contemplative walks through the countryside, and of course all of the answers are contained in nature. All we have to do is learn how to listen. A lover of nature she describes in her autobiography “In search of imperfection,” the importance of those forced isolations for improving her intuition.

And for those who look upon age as an impediment, let this remarkable woman set them straight. “I am not afraid of death — I am privileged to have been able to work for so long,” says Levi-Montalcini. “If I die tomorrow or in a year, it is the same — it is the message you leave behind you that counts.



  1. I’m lucky enough to live in Italy, where, I’m proud to say we all loved Rita and her amazing courage. She will, indeed, be sorely missed. But her life makes it much easier for the rest of us to own our courage and pioneering spirit.

  2. Tom says:

    Very inspirational.

  3. Virginia says:

    That was very inspirational to read! Thank you so much.

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