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Rita Levi-Montalcini (1909-2012)

Her father didn’t think she should have a professional career. As a woman, she faced discrimination in medical school – which was nothing compared to the discrimination she faced as a Jewish person in Italy during the second World War. Levi-Montalcini’s determination never flagged, and she went on to discover the first neuronal growth factor, win the Nobel Prize – and serve on the Italian Senate. 

Levi-Montalcini and her twin sister Paola were the youngest of four children. She considered becoming a writer, but at age 20 persuaded her father to let her attend the University of Turin Medical School, where she developed skills in silver-staining of nerve cells with Giuseppe Levi (1872-1965). 

She obtained her MD in 1936, then decided to specialize in neurology, unsure of whether to pursue clinical neurology or focus entirely on research. In 1938 the decision was made for her: a new law under Mussolini prohibited Jews from studying or working in state schools. After a brief stint working in Belgium, she returned to Italy, where she set up a secret laboratory in her bedroom, studying nerves in chicken embryos with surgical tools adapted from sewing needles. 

It was there that she first theorized that there was some kind of chemical that was necessary and sufficient for the growth of nerve cells – a nerve growth factor.

During the war, she moved her lab to a rural cottage, collecting fertilized chicken eggs from nearby farms, studying them, and serving the leftovers to her family. Eventually she had to stop her experiments when German troops invaded Italy and her family went into hiding in Florence. There, she practiced clinical medicine in a refugee camp.

After the war, she briefly returned to a faculty position in Turin. In 1947 she accepted a temporary position with Professor Viktor Hamburger (1900-2001) at Washington University in St. Louis, whose research on limb growth in chicken embryos had inspired her own. She remained there for 30 years, becoming full professor in 1958.

Using tumor cells and nerve cell cultures, she attempted to isolate the factor that caused nerves to grow. With Stanley Cohen (1922-2020), she discovered that snake venom caused nerves to proliferate in cultures, and that a similar factor was found in murine salivary glands. In 1960, Levi-Montalcini published a trio of papers in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, describing the isolation of and the physiological relevance of nerve growth factor.

In 1986 she shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Cohen. In 2001, she was appointed Senator-for-Life by the Italian president. She continued to research and publish until her death, dividing her time between St. Louis and a second laboratory in Rome.

Levi-Montalcini, Rita. In Praise of Imperfection: My Life and Work. Basic Books, New York, 1988.

Essay by Alison Christy, MD, PhD