Biography of Rita Levi-Montalcini, Scientist and Nobel Prize Winner

Neuroscientist Rita Levi-Montalcini at 100
Italian Scientist Rita Levi Montalcini at the celebrations of her 100 birthday.

 Alessandra Benedetti/Corbis via Getty Images

Rita Levi-Montalcini (1909–2012) was a Nobel Prize-winning neurologist who discovered and studied the Nerve Growth Factor, a critical chemical tool the human body uses to direct cell growth and build nerve networks. Born into a Jewish family in Italy, she survived the horrors of Hitler's Europe to make major contributions to research on cancer and Alzheimer's disease.  

Early Years 

Rita Levi-Montalcini was born in Turin, Italy, on April 22, 1909. She was the youngest of four children from a well-to-do Italian Jewish family led by Adamo Levi, an electrical engineer, and Adele Montalcini, a painter. As was the custom in the early 20th century, Adamo discouraged Rita and her sisters Paola and Anna from entering college. Adamo felt that the "woman's role" of raising a family was incompatible with creative expression and professional endeavors.

Rita had other plans. At first, she wanted to be a philosopher, then decided she wasn't logically minded enough. Then, inspired by Swedish writer Selma Lagerlof, she considered a career in writing. After her governess died of cancer, however, Rita decided she would become a doctor, and in 1930, she entered the University of Turin at the age of 22. Rita's twin sister Paola went on to great success as an artist. Neither of the sisters married, a fact about which neither expressed any regret.

Education 

Levi-Montalcini's first mentor at the University of Turin was Giuseppe Levi (no relation). Levi was a prominent neurohistologist who introduced Levi-Montalcini to the scientific study of the developing nervous system. She became an intern at the Institute of Anatomy at Turin, where she grew adept at histology, including techniques like staining nerve cells.

Giuseppe Levi was known for being something of a tyrant, and he gave his mentee an impossible task: figure out how the convolutions of the human brain are formed. However, Levi-Montalcini was unable to obtain human fetal tissue in a country where abortion was illegal, so she dropped the research in favor of studying nervous system development in chick embryos.

In 1936, Levi-Montalcini graduated from the University of Turin summa cum laude with a degree in Medicine and Surgery. She then enrolled in a three-year specialization in neurology and psychiatry. In 1938, Benito Mussolini banned "non-Aryans" from academic and professional careers. Levi-Montalcini was working at a scientific institute in Belgium when Germany invaded that country in 1940, and she returned to Turin, where her family was considering emigrating to the United States. However, the Levi-Montalcinis ultimately decided to remain in Italy. In order to continue her research on chick embryos, Levi-Montalcini installed a small research unit at home in her bedroom. 

World War II

In 1941, heavy Allied bombing forced the family to abandon Turin and move to the countryside. Levi-Montalcini was able to continue her research until 1943, when the Germans invaded Italy. The family fled to Florence, where they lived in hiding until the end of World War II. 

While in Florence, Levi-Montalcini worked as a medical doctor for a refugee camp and fought epidemics of infectious diseases and typhus. In May 1945, the war ended in Italy, and Levi-Montalcini and her family returned to Turin, where she resumed her academic positions and worked again with Giuseppe Levi. In the fall of 1947, she received an invitation from Professor Viktor Hamburger at the Washington University in St. Louis (WUSTL) to work with him conducting research on chick embryo development. Levi-Montalcini accepted; she would remain at WUSTL until 1977. 

Professional Career 

At WUSTL, Levi-Montalcini and Hamburger discovered a protein that, when released by cells, attracts nerve growth from nearby developing cells. In the early 1950s, she and biochemist Stanley Cohen isolated and described the chemical which became known as the Nerve Growth Factor.  

Levi-Montalcini became an associate professor at WUSTL in 1956 and a full professor in 1961. In 1962, she helped establish the Institute of Cell Biology in Rome and became its first director. She retired from WUSTL in 1977, remaining as emerita there but splitting her time between Rome and St. Louis. 

Nobel Prize and Politics

In 1986, Levi-Montalcini and Cohen were together awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine. She was only the fourth woman to win a Nobel Prize. In 2002, she established the European Brain Research Institute (EBRI) in Rome, a non-profit center to foster and promote brain research. 

In 2001, Italy made her a senator for life, a role which she did not take lightly. In 2006, at the age of 97, she held the deciding vote in the Italian parliament on a budget that was backed by the government of Roman Prodi. She threatened to withdraw her support unless the government reversed a last-minute decision to cut science funding. The funding was put back in, and the budget passed, despite attempts by the opposition leader Francesco Storace to silence her. Storace mockingly sent her crutches, stating that she was too old to vote and a "crutch" to an ailing government.

At the age of 100, Levi-Montalcini was still going to work at the EBRI, now named after her. 

Personal Life 

Levi-Montalcini never married and had no children. She was briefly engaged in medical school, but had no long-term romances. In a 1988 interview with Omni magazine, she commented that even marriages between two brilliant people might suffer because of resentment over unequal success. 

She was, however, the author or co-author of over 20 popular books, including her own autobiography, and dozens of research studies. She received numerous scientific medals, including the United States National Medal of Science, presented to her at the White House by President Ronald Reagan in 1987.

Famous Quotes

In 1988, Scientific American asked 75 researchers their reasons for becoming a scientist. Levi-Montalcini gave the following reason: 

The love for nerve cells, a thirst for unveiling the rules which control their growth and differentiation, and the pleasure of performing this task in defiance of the racial laws issued in 1939 by the Fascist regime were the driving forces which opened the doors for me of the "Forbidden City."

During a 1993 interview with Margaret Holloway for Scientific American, Levi-Montalcini mused: 

If I had not been discriminated against or had not suffered persecution, I would never have received the Nobel Prize. 

Levi-Montalcini's 2012 obituary in the New York Times included the following quote, from her autobiography:

It is imperfection—not perfection—that is the end result of the program written into that formidably complex engine that is the human brain, and of the influences exerted upon us by the environment and whoever takes care of us during the long years of our physical, psychological and intellectual development.

Legacy and Death

Rita Levi-Montalcini died on December 30, 2012, at age 103, at her home in Rome. Her discovery of the Nerve Growth Factor, and the research that led to it, gave other researchers a new way to study and understand cancers (disorders of neural growth) and Alzheimer's disease (degeneration of neurons). Her research created fresh pathways for developing groundbreaking therapies. 

Levi-Montalcini's influence in nonprofit science efforts, refugee work, and mentoring students was considerable. Her 1988 autobiography is eminently readable and often assigned to beginning STEM students.

Rita Levi-Montalcini Fast Facts

  • Full Name: Rita Levi-Montalcini
  • Occupation: Nobel Prize winning neuroscientist
  • Known for: Discovering the first nerve growth factor (NGF)
  • Born: April 22, 1909 in Turin, Italy 
  • Parents' Names: Adamo Levi and Adele Montalcini
  • Died: December 30, 2012 in Rome, Italy
  • Education: University of Turin, Medicine and Surgery
  • Academic Positions: University of Turin, University of Washington at St. Louis, European Brain Research Institute
  • Key Accomplishments: Received the Nobel Prize in Medicine and the U.S. National Medal of Science
  • Famous Quote: "If I had not been discriminated against or had not suffered persecution, I would never have received the Nobel Prize."

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