Forgotten Women : Rita Levi-Montalcini

In the spring 1940, Rita Levi-Montalcini was working out of a bedroom laboratory. Ousted from her university position by anti-Semitic laws, Rita spent the next four years hiding from Italian and Nazi forces as she continued her work. Her tremendous determination would pay off; just eight years later, she would make the discovery that won her a Nobel Prize.


Rita Levi-Montalcini was born in 1909 to an accomplished family. Her mother was a successful painter, her father an electrical engineer and mathematician. It was in this environment that Levi-Montalcini was raised and encouraged to embrace intellectual pursuits. After persuading her father to allow her to attend a university, she entered medical school in the city of Turin. There, Rita entered the tutelage of the renowned Italian histologist Giuseppe Levi, training alongside two other students who would also go on to win the Nobel Prize. Levi-Montalcini proved adept at medicine, excelling both in the laboratory and in her studies. When she graduated medical school in 1936, she did so with a summa cum laude degree in Medicine and Surgery.


Following her graduation, Rita immediately enrolled in a specialization program in neurology and psychiatry, remaining at the University of Turin to continue her studies and serve as Giuseppe Levi’s assistant. It was in this time that Benito Mussolini’s Manifesto of Race was published, ushering in a wave of racial laws that banned Jews like Levi-Montalcini from holding university positions. Forced into hiding, she continued her research, studying the growth of nerve fibers in chicken embryos. Not soon after she began her work, her mentor Giuseppe Levi joined her miniature laboratory, having just fled from Nazi-invaded Belgium.


Rita and her laboratory were forced to move several times, abandoning those places that experienced heavy bombing or were in the path of Nazi invasions. In 1943, she set up her research station in Florence, continuing to live “underground” until Anglo-American armies forced the Nazis out of the city. Switching from research to medicine, Levi-Montalcini was then hired as a medical doctor, treating war refugees who were brought to Florence from areas of more intense fighting.


Following the war, Rita returned to Turin and resumed her academic position at the university she had graduated from. It was in this time that she published her findings from the years she spent working in her miniature laboratory. Her research, inspired by the earlier work of German embryologist Viktor Hamburger, attracted his attention in 1947, when he invited her to join him in his laboratory in the U.S and repeat her work in his laboratory. It was in this laboratory where Levi-Montalcini made her most impactful discovery: nerve growth factor. By discovering the cell-secreted factors that prompted nerve growth, her work would lay the foundation for further research in physiology, embryology, and even cancer treatment. In 1986, she and her research partner, Stanley Cohen, were awarded the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for their growth factor discoveries.


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Images from Levi-Montalcini’s paper on nerve growth factor. The nerve ganglion treated with the growth factor (left) displays dramatic nerve fiber growth.


Rita Levi-Montalcini continued to lead an accomplished life after she discovered nerve growth factor. In 1956 she became an associate professor at Washington University in St. Louis, and within two years was promoted to full professor. In 1962, she established a second laboratory in Rome, dividing her time between her labs in Italy and the United States. She directed the Institute of Cell Biology of the Italian National Council of Research for nine years, and guest lectured at the same institute after her retirement. In 1987, she was awarded the National Medical of Science—the highest American scientific honor—and in 1999 was an appointed ambassador to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, focusing personally on combatting world hunger. In 2002, she established the European Brain Research Institute in Rome. She even served in the Italian Senate for eleven years. Over the course of her 103 years, Levi-Montalcini held a nearly baffling number of awards and honors—so many that, for the sake of ensuring that this article doesn’t become a resumé, I’m simply going to link you to that section of her Wikipedia page.


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Rita Levi-Montalcini at a celebration of her 100th birthday. She became the first Nobel Laureate to live to (and past) 100 years old.


Rita Levi-Montalcini led a spectacularly accomplished research career. She was a driven, intellectually gifted woman whose research efforts in the face of persecution advanced our knowledge of physiology. Her contributions to the field were, truly, revolutionary. Her efforts post-Nobel Prize to combine research with public activity point to her being, not just a singular researcher, but a singular human being as well.