Riccardo Levi-Setti, Holocaust survivor, physicist, professor Emeritus, Director of the Enrico Fermi Institute at the University of Chicago, and world renowned expert of fossils and trilobites, died at age 91, on Nov. 8th in Chicago.
A prolific researcher, he was published in numerous prestigious scientific journals, such as Nature and the Journal of Bone and Mineral Research. He was also a Fulbright Scholar, recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, elected fellowship in the American Physical Society, the Leonardo da Vinci Award for Outstanding Achievement in Science, the Steinberg Award of the Association of Applied Paleontological Sciences, Research Associate of Field Museum of Natural History, and awarded a Commendatore dell’Ordine al Merito—one of the highest awards of merit given by the Italian Republic.
Born Riccardo Levi on July 11, 1927 in Milan, Italy to Paolo and Gilda Levi, a decorated Lt. Colonel in the Italian Army of WWI and a Venetian Aristocrat, respectively, Levi-Setti’s noble heritage was quickly endangered by WWII. As Mussolini gained power in the late 1930’s, and the persecution of Jews increased, the family business and Riccardo’s ability to attend public school were taken away. By 1942 the family had left Milan for safer quarters in Peve del Cairo, near Pavia, and Riccardo’s schooling was taken over with private tutoring by a Physics Professor at the University of Pavia.
Shortly thereafter, in 1943, Italy fell to the Nazis and the SS took over the family apartment in Milan, setting it up as their headquarters, and started a search for the missing Levis. A loyal friend rushed to the country to warn the family, but Riccardo’s mother had already left on a trip back to Milan to pick up supplies from the apartment. Riccardo and his father Paolo were secreted in the dead of night, further into the mountains surrounding Pavia, paying off a local farmer to hide in his barn.
Meanwhile Gilda, having arrived in Milan, mounted the stairs to the apartment. Miraculously their downstairs neighbor spotted her and grabbed her before she reached the door, whisking her off to a local convent. She remained in the convent, ultimately hiding under a pile of coal to escape a later SS search, before being rescued by Riccardo’s Godmother Elisa Setti and spending the rest of the war hidden in her apartment in Milan.
Dysentery later forced Paolo back to Milan to recuperate and hide in the Setti apartment with Gilda. Now left to fend for himself, at age 16 and 17, Gestapo raids forced Riccardo deeper into mountain caves and underground gas tanks, and ultimately into contact with the growing Italian Resistance. Fighting with the partisans brought interaction with British and American paratroopers, improving his English and exposing him to American cigarettes, a habit he faithfully continued for 77 years.
These years in hiding informed the rest of Riccardo’s life. To occupy himself while in hiding, he would slip out of the barn to search for fossils in the steep surrounding mountains. Physics tutoring continued when possible as well, thanks to a local Physics Grad student. Once liberated in 1945, he and his brother Franco(who had been in England when war broke out) legally added the name Setti to theirs, in honor of all Mrs. Setti had done to save their parents and he devoted his studies to Physics, and received his PhD from the University of Pavia in 1952.
A meeting with Enrico Fermi led to an offer to become a Research Associate at the University of Chicago in 1956. He was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship, which bought him a ticket on a ship bound for America. The ticket aboard this ship would not, however, get him to the University until a few days after the semester had started. This did not sit well with his father who insisted he not arrive late, and purchased him a berth on an earlier ship, the Cristoforo Colombo. Once again fate favored Riccardo, as his original ticket purchased by the Fulbright Program ended up to be on the sunken Andrea Doria!
Six months after arriving at the University of Chicago he was offered a faculty position as Assistant Professor. Tenure followed in 1963. During this period of the 50s and 60s, Riccardo was working in high energy physics. His measurements of tracks of elementary particle reactions in thick photo emulsions contributed the bulk of the experimental evidence for proof of neutral K-meson decay that led to the discovery of strange quarks for which James Cronin got the Nobel prize in 1964.
Full professorship was awarded in 1965 and in the 70s Levi-Setti radically changed his research field, moving into the newly emerging field of ion microscopy. Based on his experience with high energy physics, he went on to create a completely different approach in the design of the ion microscope. Levi-Setti’s ion microscope was made as a combination of two particle accelerators (instruments of high-energy experimental physics) of small size. With this instrument design, Riccardo achieved a special imagery resolution quality which was the closest of any to the calculated theoretical resolution limit, while also having the highest brightness using an original liquid-metal Ion source design.
The quality of the images he produced, with their unprecedented spatial resolution, coupled with mass spectrometric analytic capabilities, allowed cross-disciplinary collaborations with a multitude of diverse investigators from around the world. Levi-Setti’s work created a plethora of crucial processes of study in the fields of materials science and biology/bio-medicine with an unprecedented level of detail available in their observations.
Levi-Setti was named Director of the Enrico Fermi Institute at the University of Chicago for two terms, 1992-2000.
Riccardo was also always a passionate collector and studier of trilobites. These extinct sea creatures, he called the “butterflies of the sea,” lived more than 500 million years ago. His passion for collecting and study took him around the world. From Italy, to Morocco, Wales to Nevada, Sweden to Canada, the Czech Republic to Utah, he travelled with gloves, hammer and a magnifying glass, establishing a world class collection. He co-discovered and unearthed, at the Manuels River, Newfoundland, the first specimen of the subspecies called Paradoxides davidis trapezopyge Bergstrom and Levi-Setti. He was especially interested in studying the trilobite compound eye and has written three books on trilobites through the auspices of the University of Chicago Press—the first edition considered the ultimate guidebook at the time.
When he first started to dig in Manuels River fossil deposits it was a junk heap, unknown and unprotected by the government. Through his persistent appeals to the Canadian Government he pioneered the eventual protection and preservation of this valuable land. In 2013, the Manuels River Hibernia Interpretation Centre was officially opened in Manuels, Newfoundland—with one-third of the exhibit space devoted to Riccardo’s endless study of the area.
Besides the named trilobite species co-discovered in Canada, Riccardo discovered a new trilobite species in Morocco that carries his name. A new centipede was discovered in Coal City, Illinois now named Levisettius Campilonectus. And finally in 2000 an asteroid orbiting between Jupiter and Mars was given the name: 45700 Levi-Setti.
Many of his vast collection of trilobites has already been donated to among many, the Field Museum of Natural History, the Manuels River Hibernia Interpretation Centre, and an upcoming permanent Plate Tectonics exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
Riccardo is survived by his wife of 41 years, Nika Semkoff Levi-Setti (former primary teacher at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools and former public relations manager of the Field Museum of Natural History). He has two sons, Emile (television director and producer, Santa Monica, CA) and Matteo (physician, San Diego, CA) who is married to Ellen Landers and who have Riccardo’s granddaughters, Allegra and Collette. His nephew in Milan, Pablo Levi-Setti, MD (wife Rossella) and their daughter, Riccardo’s grandniece, Guiomar.
His family wishes his remains could have been fossilized and returned to the earth to be among his beloved trilobites. Just like all trilobites, the best ones are hard to find.