Physicians » Neurologists » RITA LEVI-MONTALCINI
Rita Levi-Montalcini was an Italian American neurologist who won a share of the 1986 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Renowned for her work in neurobiology, she is credited to have revolutionized the study of neural development through her work. Her research in cell growth and nerve networks paved the way for further investigations which shed new light on the treatment of diseases like dementia and cancer. The daughter of a Jewish engineer and mathematician, she grew up in a loving home with an intellectually stimulating environment. Her father was a conservative person, and as was the norm in the early 20th century Italy, he discouraged his daughters from pursuing professional careers. However Rita was an intelligent and rebellious young woman who chose to become a doctor despite her father’s initial opposition. She entered the University of Turin and graduated with a summa cum laude degree in Medicine and Surgery. The 1930s marked a politically tumultuous period in Italy and Jews were barred from academic and professional careers. Forced into hiding during the German occupation of Italy during the World War II, she moved to the United States after the war and established a successful career as a neurologist. She frequently returned to her motherland and helped establish the Institute of Cell Biology in Rome and became its first director.
Rita Levi-Montalcini continued her research despite the challenges. She set up a laboratory in her bedroom and studied the growth of nerve fibers in chicken embryos even as the World War II raged on.
The Germans invaded Italy in 1943, and Turin became a dangerous place to live in. She along with her family fled to Florence. She set up a second laboratory in their temporary residence and continued her work.
An important turning point in the war occurred in 1944 when the Anglo-American armies forced the German invaders to leave Florence. Levi-Montalcini was hired as a medical doctor at the Anglo-American Headquarters during this time.
The war in Italy ended in 1945 and her family returned to Turin where she was able to resume her career. In 1946, she was granted a one-semester research fellowship at Washington University in St. Louis, US.
She accepted the post in 1947 and joined the zoologist Viktor Hamburger in his laboratory at the university. Their collaborative experiments were very successful and impressed by her performance, Hamburger offered her a research associate position.
In 1952 Levi-Montalcini successfully isolated Nerve growth factor (NGF), a neuropeptide primarily involved in the regulation of growth, maintenance, proliferation, and survival of certain target neurons. Her observations of certain cancerous tissues in chick embryos led to this achievement.
She rose through the ranks in Washington University and was promoted as associate professor in 1956 and full professor in 1958; she retired in 1977.
She visited Italy frequently, and helped establish the Institute of Cell Biology in Rome in 1962. She served as the director of the institute from 1969 to 1978. In 2001, she was appointed as Senator for Life by the President of Italy, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi.
Rita Levi-Montalcini in collaboration with her colleague Stanley Cohen discovered the nerve growth factor (NGF) which was the first of many cell-growth factors to be found in the bodies of animals. NGF plays a critical role in the regulation of both innate and acquired immunity.
Rita Levi-Montalcini was born on 22 April 1909, in Turin, Italy, as one of the four children of Adamo Levi, an electrical engineer and mathematician, and his wife Adele Montalcini, a talented painter.
She grew up in a loving family environment and had a happy childhood. Her father was a well educated man who respected women. However, he did not want Rita and her sisters to pursue professional careers.
As a young girl, she wanted to become a writer. But with time her interests changed and she decided to become a doctor. Initially her father was against her decision, but eventually she gained his support.
She entered the University of Turin where the prominent neurohistologist Giuseppe Levi sparked her interest in the study of the nervous system. She graduated with a summa cum laude degree in Medicine and Surgery in 1936. Following her graduation she enrolled in the three year specialization in neurology and psychiatry.
The late 1930s was a period of political turmoil in Europe and in 1938, Italy’s Fascist leader Benito Mussolini passed the Manifesto of Race under which Jews were barred from academic and professional careers.
Rita Levi-Montalcini never married. She was very close to her siblings all of who predeceased her.
She lived an extraordinarily long life and became the first Nobel laureate ever to reach a 100th birthday. She was feted with a 100th birthday party at Rome's city hall on 22 April 2009. She died on 30 December 2012 at the age of 103.
In 1986, Rita Levi-Montalcini and Stanley Cohen were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine "for their discoveries of growth factors." The same year the duo was also awarded the Albert Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research.
She received the National Medal of Science, the highest American scientific honor, in 1987.