Remembering Elio Raviola

Message from George Q. Daley, President of the Armenise Harvard Foundation and Dean of the Faculty of Medicine, Harvard University.

It is with great sadness that I write to share the news of the death of Elio Raviola, the HMS Bullard Professor of Neurobiology and Professor of Ophthalmology, Emeritus. Dr. Raviola, who was celebrated for his sharp intellect, deep appreciation for the history of science, and theatrical lectures, died on Dec. 23, 2023, at the age of 91.

Born in Asti, Italy, in 1932, Dr. Raviola was invited to Harvard Medical School after completing his PhD at the University of Pavia, where he initiated his research on the
nervous system. At HMS, he directed a lab in the Department of Anatomy and, subsequently, in the Department of Neurobiology, from 1970 to 2023. He became professor emeritus in 2013, after a long tenure saturated with teaching accolades, stunning scientific insights, and outstanding commitment to mentorship. The number of lives that Dr. Raviola influenced during his time at HMS is substantial.

Dr. Raviola made many seminal contributions to our understanding of the retina, particularly the role and connectivity of the many individual cell types. In addition to conducting novel studies of the way photoreceptors interact with secondary neurons, he developed an experimental model of myopia with 1981 Nobel laureate Torsten Wiesel. Together, they discovered that the eye elongation that causes myopia is mediated by growth-regulating chemicals produced in the retina.

The passion and exuberance Dr. Raviola demonstrated in the classroom — his dramatic lectures were beloved by generations of students — was tempered by his belief in balance. Indeed, he often quoted the old Roman saying “est modus in rebus,” which means “everything in proportion” or “moderation in all things.” Dr. Raviola emphasized the importance of both work and play; he championed bold, forward-thinking vision as well as critical reflection on the past; and in his research, he achieved balance by complementing classical anatomical methods with advanced electrophysiological and molecular techniques.

Dr. Raviola approached education with the uninhibited zeal of an artist and the pragmatism of a careful communicator. In 1974, he received the HMS Boylston Award for excellence in teaching at Harvard Medical School. In addition to serving on many HMS committees, he was also involved in the establishment of the Giovanni Armenise Harvard Foundation, which fosters cross-Atlantic collaboration by supporting leading scientists at Harvard Medical School and at preeminent institutions in Italy.

Above all, Dr. Raviola will be remembered for his welcoming nature, his generous and humble spirit, his self-deprecating humor, and his legendary thirst for life.

Message from Lisa Mayer, Executive Director of the Armenise Harvard Foundation. What a loss for the Foundation in the passing of Dr. Elio Raviola.

Not only was he an invaluable advisor to Dean Tosteson, helping to design our major programs, but he was a constant source of guidance and inspiration to the management team from the Foundation’s beginning. A self-described central architect of our Career Development Award Program, he took tremendous pride at seeing how that cohort of talented scientists developed in Italy, as well as the accomplishments of the Junior Faculty Grant Program at Harvard Medical School. He was a long-standing member of our Italian Scientific Advisory Committee and was responsible for recruiting some of our most
valuable faculty reviewers.
In addition to important contributions to science, he was notable in being the Foundation’s expert on Caravaggio. Many of our faculty and staff benefited from personal tours of his favorite treasures in Rome. And all of us lucky enough to have worked with him will miss him greatly.