Italo Calma and his ancestors were born in Italy. His great grandfather was a foreign newspaper correspondent in Italy in the 1870s. His father was a civil engineer who oversaw the design and construction of Milan Central Station and other railway projects. The family background was secular, Jewish and very Italian. The family was not observant but aware of their Jewishness. His father died young and Italo was brought up by an uncle and his non-Jewish wife. Italo and his brother went to Italian schools and to University in Milan. Italo studied medicine but was not impressed with the medical school, which was very backward. Under Mussolini there was no antisemitism and Jews did well until 1938 when Mussolini made a pact with Germany and brought out the Italian Racial Laws. After this, his brother managed to leave for the USA. Italo came to England for two months in July 1939 to study English. Due to the outbreak of war he remained in the UK.
He stayed with a cousin in London and then went to stay with a friend in Cambridge, where he unsuccessfully tried to find medical work at the University. He studied and published his dissertation but earned no money. He was interned in the Italian camp on the Isle of Man in May 1940-October 1940. When he was released he found a job in London with the Foreign Service of the BBC as a translator and announcer. After 9 months he took an unpaid research job in Physiology with the Middlesex Hospital, which had been evacuated to Leeds. After a few months in Leeds and working weekends at the BBC, he came back to London. He continued working at the hospital there and for the BBC.