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Rita Montalcini, Italian Biologist, Dies at 103

Rita Levi Montalcini, an Italian biologist who defied World War II fascist anti-Semitism and went on to win a Nobel Prize in medicine, died at the age of 103.

Her niece told reporters that Levi Montalcini died quietly in her sleep on Sunday at her home in Rome.

Tributes poured in from across the Italian spectrum for one of Italy’s most admired and honored women. The Rome newspaper Il Messaggero said news of her death was greeted on the Internet “with the same affection and same outpouring of messages as would have accompanied the death of a rock star or cinema idol.”

Recognized as a moral as well as intellectual authority, Montalcini was named a Senator for Life, one of Italy’s highest honors, in 2001.

“A luminous figure in the history of science has passed away,” President Giorgio Napolitano said in a statement. Napolitano praised Levi-Montalcini’s scientific work as well as her commitment to fostering the rights of women.

Rome Mayor Gianni Alemanno called her death a great loss “for all of humanity.” In a statement, Alemanno said Levi Montalcini had represented “civic conscience, culture and the spirit of research of our time.”

Levi Montalcini, who never married, was born to a Jewish family in Turin in 1909. During World War II, because of anti-Semitic restrictions by the fascist government, she worked secretly in a clandestine laboratory that she built in her bedroom.

She and her family fled Turin in 1941, first to a mountain village and in 1943 to Florence, where they spent the rest of the war in hiding. After the war, Levi Montalcini moved to the United States and eventually divided her time between the U.S. and Italy.

In 1986 she shared the Nobel Prize in medicine with American biochemist Stanley Cohen for groundbreaking research carried out in the U.S. unlocking the mysteries of the cell.

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