Piergiorgio Strata

Piergiorgio Strata

I was born in a small village in the Northern Italy where my father was a country doctor. In 1939 he was accused of disloyalty to fascism, condemned to jail and in 1940 confined to a small village in the south of Italy near Naples. He could reach us in 1945 at the end of the 2nd world war. My father became a kind of hero of the resistance against the fascism and his history was a matter of my admiration. He inspired to me the true values of life.

In the high school I chose the most demanding class. I excelled in mathematics and physics where I was lucky to have an outstanding teacher. In physics I had a particular curiosity for the experiments leading to a theory. My scientific skills were not matched by my abilities in humanities despite a teacher that I still consider the man who contributed to shape my brain in line with the same values of my father.

In that period my life was full of too many interests. I was intensely practising several sports. Among them, I reached an apex in 1953 when I won the long jump Italian championship setting a new national record for the juvenile (under 21 years of age) category. To me science was great, but I was seeing the scientists very far in a kind of heaven blessed by God. It was like to love music with the perception that you would never become a composer.

In 1954, when I had to decide to go to the University, my preference was for the physics. However, I was afraid to end up as a high school teacher. I decided to become a doctor, because I felt more secure to find a life job in my father field.

As in sport, I liked to select the most difficult option and I tried to compete for the two seats at the most famous college attached to the Scuola Normale of Pisa. This college is now the Sant’Anna School where I’m sitting in the Board of Directors. Once more I was lucky because one of the examiners was Giuseppe Moruzzi who was usually inviting the winners of the competition to enter his worldwide famous Institute of Physiology. Incidentally, as from my proposal, Moruzzi is now in the history books of the APS for the work published in 1949 in collaboration with Horace W. Magoun on the physiology of sleep.

I left all my previous multifaceted interests and my innate curiosity concentrated on science, keeping the possibility to be a doctor as a kind of escape door in case of non-success in pursuing the scientific career. The Institute was the Mecca of sleep studies, full of scientists from all over the world. At the first IBRO World meeting organized in Pisa by Moruzzi I met the most outstanding scientists in the field of neuroscience. Among them, I admired Sir John C. Eccles who later received the Nobel Prize. With him I spent my PhD period in Canberra. He invited me to join him when he moved to the Institute of Biomedical Research of the American Medical Association in Chicago. I obtained an immigrant visa for me and my new family with two little kids. The visa would have allowed me to become an American citizen. I was also nominated Honorary Associate Professor of Neurology at the Northwestern University.

After two years with Sir John, Moruzzi offered me a permanent position with an independent lab in Pisa. Italy, at that time, was a leading country in science and the conditions to work were excellent. Life was great. However, the ’68 worldwide movements had a sad impact on the Italian science. A new political trend bag-snatched the Italian miracle and science was not a priority anymore. Nonetheless, Pisa was still an island where it was possible to work in the best conditions, due to the international connections of Moruzzi with the best scientists in the world. In this period I established many friendships that lasted for life. With Sir John living in Switzerland the close relationship lasted up to his death in 1997.

The Institute was full of excellent Italian scientists and several of them left Italy or they migrated in other Universities. After a short period in a new small University, in 1975 I moved as a Professor in the University of Turin where I stayed for the rest of my academic life until 2010 and where I’m now Emeritus.

Life in Turin was not easy because of the poor infrastructures where I was supposed to work. While waiting for the development, I spent short, but fruitful periods, in Frankfurt, Zurich and Paris where I put the roots for my future European collaborations. In Turin, with many outstanding students and several European grants, I could establish an excellent group of people who are now independent and internationally recognized scientists in Italy and abroad. I also had a wide activity in communicating science, in serving in international scientific organizations also on behalf of my Government.