Rita Levi-Montalcini


Born: Apr 22, 1909 in Turin, Kingdom of Italy
Died: Dec 30, 2012 (at age 103) in Rome, Italy
Nationality: Italian
Famous For: Nerve growth factor
Awards: Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (1986), National Medal of Science (1987)

Rita Levi-Montalcini was an Italian neurologist and a Nobel Prize winner in medicine and physiology in 1986 for the discovery of Nerve Growth Factor (NFG). She also held the distinction of being the oldest living Nobel laureate as well as the first ever to reach their 100th birthday.

Early Life

She was born in 1909 in Turin, Italy. Her father was a mathematician and electrical engineer and her mother was a painter. Levi-Montalcini decided early in her life not to marry in order to be fully independent in her choices.

Levi-Montalcini’s father discouraged his daughters from entering into college. After much effort, finally, he supported his daughter’s aspirations to become a doctor. She joined the medicine program at the University of Turin and graduated in 1936. She soon faced many challenges, from overcoming fascism and anti-Semitism during World War II to dealing with sexism in medicine.

Research Work

Levi-Montalcini was taught by Giuseppe Levi, a neurohistologist, about the developing nervous system. In 1938, due to Mussolini’s manifesto and laws that banned non-Aryans from academic and professional careers, she created her own lab at home and started research studying normal and abnormal neural development in chick embryos. Her teacher Giuseppe Levi also accompanied in her research in a cottage outside Turin. After liberation, Levi-Montalcini was hired by the allies and she took a job as a doctor in refugee camps. She moved back to the University of Turin when the war was over.

In the meantime, the research done by Levi-Montalcini and Giuseppe Levi had been published in several journals. In 1952, Levi-Montalcini, along with Stanley Cohen, analyzed a special chemical, the nerve growth factor. Nerve growth factor is a protein that is considered to be the first substance to regulate cell growth and the way it could communicate. The research done by Levi-Montalcini was found revolutionary in the field of embryology, and facilitated the understanding of several conditions like senile dementia, developmental malformations and tumors.

Levi-Montalcini established a research lab in Rome in the early 1960’s, dividing her time between Italy and America. She became the director of the Institute of cell biology in Rome’s National Council of research. She retired during late 1970’s and spent most of her time researching, writing several books and developing the Levi-Montalcini foundation which promoted educational programs all over the world and granted scholarships to deserving candidates.

Final Years

Rita Levi-Montalcini never got married, as she said, “I am married to science.” She was appointed as a senator by the Italian prime minister for her outstanding contributions to science. She died at the age of 103 on December 30th, 2012.