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Longtime biology professor Annamaria Torriani-Gorini dies at 94

Microbiologist and lifelong social activist worked at MIT from 1960 to 1989.
Annamaria Torriani-Gorini
Annamaria Torriani-Gorini

Annamaria Torriani-Gorini, professor emerita of biology at MIT, died May 2 at her home in Brookline, Mass. She was 94.

“Her life journey took her across continents and cultures,” her son, Daniel Gorini, says. “During those years she touched many people with her unwavering self-confidence, her blunt direct manner and her generous heart.”

Torriani-Gorini’s education allowed her to forge a path in science that was rare for Italian women of her generation, her son says: She received a PhD in botany from the University of Milan in 1942, and from then until 1948 was a research associate at the Giulio Ronzoni Istituto Chimica e Biochimica in Milan.

This was followed by eight years at the Institut Pasteur in Paris, including six years on the faculty, from 1950 to 1956; there, she worked with Melvin Cohn and Jacques Monod, who would go on to win the 1965 Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology. In 1956, Torriani-Gorini won a Fulbright postdoctoral fellowship, which allowed her to spend two years in the Department of Microbiology at New York University School of Medicine. In 1958, she moved to the Boston area, and Harvard University, where she was a research associate in the departments of biology and biochemistry.

Torriani-Gorini’s long affiliation with MIT began in 1960 with a job as a research associate in the Department of Biology. From 1962 to 1972, her work at MIT was supported by a Career Development Award from the National Institutes of Health. She earned tenure and became an associate professor of biology in 1971, and was promoted to full professor in 1976.

At MIT, Torriani-Gorini’s research interests were in the area of bacterial physiology. Her work with bacterial alkaline phosphatase is often cited as a model for studies of the regulation of enzyme synthesis. She also made significant contributions to teaching undergraduates in her popular introductory laboratory course in the Department of Biology, and by mentoring students in her laboratory.

Torriani-Gorini’s service to MIT included the Undergraduate Advising Committee from 1970 to 1973, the Wellesley-MIT Exchange Program from 1974 to 1978, and the Women’s Advisory Committee in 1975. She was a member of MIT’s Committee of the Use of Humans as Experimental Subjects from 1980 to 1988.

Torriani-Gorini became professor emerita upon her retirement from MIT in 1989. In 1990, she won a Fulbright scholarship to teach and conduct research on the control of macromolecular synthesis at the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology in Hyderabad, India. She became an honorary member of the French Society of Microbiology in 1993.

A love of science, an abhorrence of repression

Torriani-Gorini was born Dec. 19, 1918, in Milan, shortly after the infamous Spanish flu of that year claimed the life of her 10-year-old brother. She grew up in Milan with her sister, who was born two years later, and her parents, Ada Forti and Carlo Torriani, a silk merchant descended from a line of nobility that had fallen from financial grace.

During the early 1940s, while working in the laboratory in Milan, she met Luigi Gorini, who became her husband. The two were drawn together not only by their love of each other, but also by a shared love of science and an abhorrence of fascism and political repression. They lived in Paris for a decade while both worked as researchers at institutes in the city before moving to the United States in 1956.

Daniel Gorini recalls the family home in Brookline as “a focus for scientists, artists and others from all around the world. At holidays, such as Thanksgiving or New Year’s Eve, the house was a haven for an eclectic mix of friends, students and collaborators who found themselves far from their homes. Lively discussion of social and political issues was the norm at these gatherings.”

Gorini adds that his parents shared a lifelong belief in social and economic justice. “Where repression, inequality or military aggression occurred, Annamaria and Luigi would be ready to speak out in protest,” he says.

A need to aid others

During the rise of fascism in 1930s Italy, Luigi Gorini was a member of the Socialist party, and involved with the resistance movement. With the liberation of Milan at the end of World War II, the Socialist party turned over to him a large house in the village of Selvino, in the Italian Alps, that had served as a boarding school for fascist youth. Recognizing the critical need to care for Jewish orphans, liberated from concentration camps, who were then drifting into northern Italy, the Gorinis were instrumental in transforming the house into a home to rehabilitate these children and to prepare them for eventual emigration to Palestine.

“They did this irrespective of ideology and without regard to religion,” Daniel Gorini says. “For them it was simply imperative to aid people that had been horribly oppressed during the fascist years.”

When Torriani-Gorini and her husband came to the United States in 1956, they continued their activism. “The Cold War was in full swing, and anticommunism was fostering U.S. support of repressive, right-wing governments in Southeast Asia, the Americas and Africa,” their son says. “From their position as established members of a global scientific community, Annamaria and Luigi spoke out, writing letters to newspapers, including their political views in lectures, and taking part in the public protests of the 1960s and ’70s. Both took U.S. citizenship in the early 1960s, but they gave no quarter to their new homeland when they felt it had acted in repressive, imperialist fashion.”

While at MIT, Torriani-Gorini was also a supporter of efforts to demand equal treatment of women in science. Throughout her life, she continued to make charitable contributions to causes such as the Southern Poverty Law Center and Citizens for Participation in Political Action, and in support of American Indians and Nepalese children.

From her youth, Torriani-Gorini loved mountains and traveled extensively, taking every opportunity to visit different places and cultures. After her husband’s death in 1976, Torriani-Gorini began trekking in Nepal, often organizing a small group of friends and colleagues to accompany her. She made her last 30-day trek to the Annapurna Sanctuary at age 78, hiking at altitudes well over 12,000 feet.

Torriani-Gorini is survived by her son; her daughter-in-law, Radhika Bagai; her sister, Clara Cattoretti; and by two grandchildren, Marco Gorini and Nika Gorini.

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