An Illustrious Unknown. Giuseppe Levi Among Science, Anti-Fascism and Nobel Prizes


  • Andrea Grignolio Interdepartmental Center 'Luigi Galvani' for the studies of Biophysics, Bioinformatics and Biocomplexity, Department of Experimental Pathology, University of Bologna, I
  • Fabio De Sio Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine at UCL, London, UK


Nervous system/ anatomy & histolgy, Scientific Biography, Fascism , History, 20th Century


The anatomist Giuseppe Levi (1872-1965) is unanimously considered one of the major figures of Italian biomedical sciences in the 20th century. His fame, however, is mainly derived from having nurtured three Nobel Prize winners, namely Salvador E. Luria, Rita Levi Montalcini and Renato Dulbecco. In reappraising Levi's role in the development of Italian science and culture in general, this article aims at questioning both the narrowness of earlier accounts and a certain kind of genealogical approach to the history of scientific disciplines and academic schools. We will here consider Giuseppe Levi as an instance of two major cultural phenomena: the development of experimental biology in Italy and continental Europe and the anti-fascist socialist culture expressed by a part of the Italian intellectuals. In so doing, we will reassess the historical specificity of the scientific maturation of Levi's three famous students, on the one hand, while on the other we will consider in some depth the cultural and moral environment in which Levi thrived and his role as a moral example for his students. Such revision, we will argue, have a direct bearing on more general historiographical issues, namely, the need for a stronger contextualization of the birth and consolidation of research traditions, implying a rejection of simplistic genealogical reconstructions, and the role of academic schools and institutional settings in the definition of novel, multidisciplinary scientific approaches. Finally, the following will highlight the importance of a more careful outlook on the master-pupil relationship in academic context, addressing issues of both continuity and rupture. The article is subdivided in two main sections, the first devoted to Levi as a scientist, the second to his Anti-fascism.