Rita Levi-Montalcini – Academic, Medical Professional, Neurologist, Educator (1909–2012)

22 Apr 1909
30 Dec 2012
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Rita Levi-Montalcini shared the 1986 Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine for her part in the discovery of a protein that stimulates nerve cell growth.

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“Above all, don’t fear difficult moments. The best comes from them.”
—Rita Levi-Montalcini

Rita Levi-Montalcini was born in Turin, Italy, on April 22, 1909. During World War II, Levi-Montalcini studied nerve cells in a homemade laboratory. This work contributed to her later discovery of nerve growth factor, for which she shared the 1986 Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine with Stanley Cohen. Levi-Montalcini died in Rome, Italy, on December 30, 2012, at the age of 103.

Early Life

Rita Levi-Montalcini was born in Turin, Italy, on April 22, 1909. Her father subscribed to the belief that women should be wives and mothers, but Levi-Montalcini, knowing that she didn’t want to marry, pleaded to be allowed to study medicine. When her father relented, she entered the University of Turin. Levi-Montalcini graduated with a degree in medicine and surgery in 1936. She then worked at the university, during which time she learned a technique for silver staining nerve cells that made the cells clearly visible under a microscope.

Before and During World War II

In 1938, Benito Mussolini instituted laws in Italy that decreed that people with Jewish heritage, like Levi-Montalcini, could no longer work at universities or in most professions, including medicine. At first frustrated, Levi-Montalcini proceeded to set up a lab in her bedroom, where she used surgical instruments made out of sharpened sewing needles.

Inspired by American embryologist Viktor Hamburger’s article about nerve development in chicken embryos, Levi-Montalcini used her silver staining technique to trace nerve growth in such embryos herself. She worked throughout World War II, even when bombing forced Levi-Montalcini and her family to leave Turin for the countryside. When the war ended, she served as a doctor in a refugee camp before returning to the University of Turin. But her life changed course when Hamburger, having seen papers that Levi-Montalcini had published, invited her to visit Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri.

Professional Success

Rita Levi-Montalcini arrived in America in 1947. Planning to stay for short time, she ended up becoming a professor at Washington University and holding dual citizenship with the United States and Italy.

In Viktor Hamburger’s lab, Levi-Montalcini saw that a mouse tumor had spurred nerve growth after being grafted onto a chicken embryo. A scientist who had no problems heeding her intuition, Levi-Montalcini adapted the experiment, placing the tumor so that it would only share the blood supply of a chicken embryo. She saw the same increased growth. After repeating the results with nerve tissue that she had cultivated in Brazil, Levi-Montalcini then began working with Stanley Cohen, a biochemist at Washington University. Together, they isolated nerve growth factor, a protein that promotes nerve growth in nearby developing cells.

Nobel Prize and Legacy

Though the scientific community did not appreciate the importance of nerve growth factor at first, they came to realize that it, along with other growth factors that were discovered later, offered possible treatments for conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, infertility and cancer. For their discovery of nerve growth factor, Rita Levi-Montalcini and Stanley Cohen were awarded the 1986 Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine.

Levi-Montalcini did not rest on her laurels after winning a Nobel Prize. Having already helped establish the Institute of Cell Biology in Rome, Italy, in 1962, she went on to create an educational foundation in 1992 and set up the European Brain Research Institute in 2002. Even toward the end of her life, Levi-Montalcini continued conducting research every day. She died in Rome, Italy, on December 30, 2012, at the age of 103.

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