(b. Trieste, Austria–Hungary, 14 October 1872; d. Turin, Italy, 3 February 1965),
human anatomy, histology, embryology.
Levi’s father, Michele Levi, was a wealthy Jewish financier whose family had financially helped the Austrian administration; his mother, Emma Perugia, was from Pisa. In spite of being brought up conservatively Levi became an enthusiastic Irredentist. He completed his secondary education in Trieste; and when his father died, the family moved to Florence, where he studied medicine and surgery, graduating in 1895. He became an assistant at a psychiatric clinic in Florence (1896-1898); then in Berlin (1898-1899) at the Institute of Anatomy directed by O. Hertwig; and returned in 1900 to Florence, to the Institute of Anatomy, as an assistant to Chiarugi. Later that year Levi obtained the chair of anatomy at the University of Sassari, then at the University of Palermo in 1914, and finally that at the University of Turin, where he remained from 1919 until 1938. Dismissed from the university because of the fascist racial laws, he obtained a post at the University of Liège (1938-1941). He was reinstated into the Italian university system in 1945 and retired in 1947, subsequently becoming director of the Center for Studies on Growth and Senility of the National Research Council. Levi was married to Lidia Tinzi, a Catholic. The couple had five children.
Levi was a member, from 1926, of the Accademia dei Lincei; of the Accademia dei XL from 1933, of the Academy of Sciences of Bologna from 1945; and of many other Italian and foreign academies and scientific societies. He held honorary doctorates from the universities of Liège, Montevideo, and Santiago (Chile); he also received the royal prize of the Accademia dei Lincei in 1923 and a gold medal “dei Benemeriti” of the Scuola della Cultura e dell’Arte.
In 1896-1898, while an assistant in the psychiatric clinic, Levi was interested less in the patients than in morphology. He conducted studies on the structure of the nucleus of nerve cells, epoch–making studies that were fully understood and confirmed only fifty years later (H. Hydén, 1945). He also investigated the Nissl substance, which he did not consider exclusive to the nerve cell, a notion also confirmed much later.
While Levi was working with Chiarugi, he carried out important morphological and histogenetic studies on the comparative anatomy of the dorsal and ventral hippocampus nerve, completing previous observations by Elliot Smith, and on the morphology of the chondrocranium of man and other mammals. In a monograph on the spinal ganglia of over fifty vertebrate species, he illustrated the significance of the fenestrated apparatus of the ganglion cells and the size relationships between those cells and the body of the animal. He concluded that the size of neurons is proportional to the size of the body (Levi’s law), in contrast with Driesch’s law, which states that the size of the cells remains constant in both the variable and the stable elements. In 1921-1925 Levi further extended the study of the development mechanism which controls the dimensions and the number of supercellular units (the histomers of Heidenhain) during the growth of the body, in relation to the rate of growth and the length of life.
At Sassari, Levi studied the morphology of chondriosomes by normal histological methods; and later, using Harrison’s method to study the behavior of mitochondria in cultured live cells, he concluded that there is no relation between mitochondria and secretion granules and that they do not transform themselves into paraplasm or myofibrils.
Levi was one of the pioneers in cultivating tissues in vitro, a line research he pursued at the University of Palermo from 1914 to 1919. He confirmed the cytologic studies of Warren and Margaret Lewis and extended his observations to elements from various tissues, studying the changes that the tissues undergo while being placed in culture. He demonstrated the existence of neurofibrils in the live elements, a finding confirmed by the electron microscope (F. Schmitt, Fernandez Moran, Palay, and Bairati).
Levi continued to develop this line of research at the University of Turin and initiated a number of students into the field. In 1934 he published an extensive monograph, “Explantation,” a documentation and discussion of the first twenty–five years of study on cultivation of tissues in vitro. Of particular interest are further observations by him and his students on the interdependence relationships of neurons grown in vitro, on the regeneration per primam of axons in vitro,, and on the differentiation of neurons in the spinal ganglia of the chicken embryo. With this method he also confirmed the acute observations of Flemming and Boveri on the fibrillar structure of neurons. In 1927 he began an extensive plan of research on the morphological aspects of the aging of tissues and organs.
Levi’s treatise on histology is marked by extreme individuality and progressiveness; it ran to four Italian (1927-1954) and two Spanish editions. Levi’s knowledge of the field, his remarkable memory, his quick intuition, and his grasp of modern concepts and techniques made him for many years Italy’s leading authority in biology. He was opposed to any racial or religious bigotry and did not approve of the Zionist movement. His sense of dignity and of independence, his social ideas, and his faith in the spiritual freedom of man made him a strenuous opponent of Fascism, under which he suffered persecution and imprisonment. He was strict, honest, loyal, intolerant of vulgarity and mediocrity; a severe and exacting, yet affectionate and generous teacher. Eight of his students became professors of human anatomy, histology, or embryology. Until the end of his life he retained his extraordinary memory and clarity of mind, and continued his keen interest in the progress of biological research. He died at the age of ninety–two, after a long and painful illness.
I. Original Works. Levi’s writings include “Su alcune particolarita di struttura del nucleo delle cellule nervose,” in Rivista di Patologia nervosa e mentale, 1 (1896), 141-149; “Contributo alla fisiologia della cellula nervosa,” ibid., 169-180; “Ricerche sulla capacità proliferativa della cellule nervosa,” ibid., 385-386; “Ricerche citologiche comparate sulla cellula nervosa dei vertebrati,” ibid.,2 (1897), 1-43; “Sulla cariocinesi delle cellule nervose,” ibid.,3 (1898), 97-112; “Sulle modificazioni morfologiche delle cellule nervose di animali a sangue freddo durante l’ibernazione,” ibid., 443-459; “Beitrag zum Studium der Entwicklung des Primordialcranium des Menschen,” in Archiv für mikroskopische Anatomie und Entwicklungsmechanik,55 (1900), 341-414; “Ueber die Entwicklung und Histogenese der Amnioshornformation,” ibid.,64 (1904), 389-404; “Morfologia e minuta struttura dell’ippocampo dorsale,” in Archivio italiano di anatomia e di embriologia,3 (1904), 438-484; “Sull’origine filogenetica della formazione ammonica,” ibid., 234-247; the three–part “Studi sulla gradezza delle cellule I. Ricerche comparative sulla grandezza delle cellule dei mammiferi,” ibid.,5 (1906) 291-358; “II. Le variazioni dell’indice plasmaticonucleare durante “l’intercinesi,” ibid.,10 (1911), 545-554; and “III. Le modificazioni della grandezza cellulare e nucleare e dell’indice plasmaticonucleare durante i precoci periodi dell’ontogenesi dei mammiferi,” in Ricerche di biologia dedicate al Prof, A. Lustig (Florence, 1914), pp. 1-26; “Cenni Sulla costituzione e sullo sviluppo dell’uncus dell’ippocampo nell’uomo,” in Archivio italiano di anatomia e di embriologia,8 (1909), 535-562; and “Contributo alla conoscenza del condrocranio dei mammiferi,” in Monitore zoologico italiano,20 (1909), 159-174; and “II comportamento dei condriosomi durante i più precoci periodi dello sviluppo dei mammiferi,” in Archiv für Zellforschung,13 (1915), 471-524.
See also “Per la migliore conoscenza del fondamento anatomico e dei fattori morfogenetici della grandezza del corpo,” in Archivio italiano di anatomia e di embriologia supp. 18 (1921), 316-434; “Wachstum und Körpergrösse,” in Ergebnisse der Anatomic and Entwicklungsgeschichte,26 (1925); 87-342; Trattato di istologia (Turin, 1927; 4th ed., 1954); “Gewebezüchtung,” in Tibor Péterfi, ed., Methodik der wissenschaftlichen Biologie, I, (Berlin, 1928), pp.494-558; Fisiopatologia della vecchiaia, I, Istologia sieroterapico (Milan, 1933); “Explantation, besonders die Struktur und die biologischen Eigenschaften der in vitro gezüchteten Zellen und Gewebe,” in Ergebnisse der Anatomie und Entwicklungsgeschichte,31 (1934), 125-707; and his revision and enlargement of Giulio Chiarugi’s Trattato di anatomia dell’uomo, 9th ed. (Milan, 1959).
II. Secondary Literature. For further information on Levi’s life and work consult the following biographical and bibliographical sources: Rodolfo Amprino, “Giuseppe Levi,” in Acta anatomica,66 (1967), 1-44, which includes a complete bibliography; and Oliviero M., Olivo, “Commemorazione del socio Giuseppe Levi,” in Atti dell’ Accademia nazionale dei Lincei. Rendiconti, 8th ser., 40 (1966), 954-972, with a bibliography. See also Annuario Accademia Nazionale dei XL (1961), pp. 49-66.
Oliviero M. Olivo