Page last updated at 13:54 GMT, Wednesday, 22 April 2009 14:54 UK

Oldest Nobel laureate turns 100

Rita Levi-Montalcini
Rita Levi-Montalcini received France's Legion d'Honneur medal in 2008

The Italian scientist and oldest living Nobel laureate, Rita Levi-Montalcini, is celebrating her 100th birthday.

Despite her age, she still works every day at the European Brain Research Institute which she founded in Rome.

She is described as the grand old lady of the Italian Senate, where she became a senator for life in 2001.

The scientist, whose family were Jewish, told the BBC that Benito Mussolini's Fascist regime was partly to thank for her career.

Born in Turin in 1909, Professor Levi-Montalcini was forced by the anti-Jewish laws of the late 1930s to quit university and do research in an improvised laboratory in her bedroom at home.

"It was a great privilege because it gave me the chance to use my capacities to the full, which I wouldn't have done had I not been forced to stay in my bedroom working like that," she told the BBC World Service.

"And if it wasn't for this, then today I'd be an old woman - which obviously I am - but I think that difficulties can be really helpful in life."

'Not afraid of dying'

Prof Levi-Montalcini, a neurologist and development biologist, shared the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1986 with Stanley Cohen and is currently writing a book on brain function.

When it comes to my mental state I'm more present today than when I was an adolescent
Rita Levi-Montalcini
Italian Nobel Laureate

She said she was not afraid of dying.

"I've never worried about this," she said.

"It's the body that dies, not the person. For the moment, my mind is still alive. When it comes to my mental state I'm more present today than when I was an adolescent."

In 2004, the revered scientist intervened to defend the teaching of evolution in Italian schools when the then education minister wanted to remove it from school curricula.

Rita Levi-Montalcini also set up a foundation for African women who in her words have been "humiliated, physically and psychologically".

"The African woman is no different from the African man. The only difference is that one is privileged within the society, and the other downtrodden", she said.

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