Inspiring Thursday: Rita Levi-Montalcini

Rita Levi-Montalcini was born in Turin, Italy on 22 April 1909 and was one of the world´s most prominent scientific investigators of the human body’s nervous system.

In her biography, “In Praise of Imperfection” (1988), she wrote that “the subordinate role played by the female in a society run entirely by men made the status of a wife less than attractive”.

Rita grew up in an observant family, in the post-Victorian era which was dominated by a patriarchal culture. Her father, Adamo Levi discouraged his daughters from attending college since he believed that “a professional career would interfere with the duties of a wife and a mother”. However, Rita wanted to become neither a wife nor a mother. She did not agree with the idea that a woman has to be a perfect wife and mother. When she told her father about her decision of studying medicine and becoming a doctor, he objected that it was a long and difficult course of study, unsuitable for a woman. Eventually, she convinced her father she wanted to be a doctor and within eight months, she made up the gaps in her education and entered medical school.

Once she entered the University of Turin, the neurophysiologist Giuseppe Levi introduced her to the developing nervous system. After graduating summa cum laude in 1936 from the University of Turin, she worked as Giuseppe Levi´s assistant but her academic career was interrupted by Benito Mussolini´s 1938 Manifesto of Race and the introduction of laws preventing Jews from academic and professional careers. Regardless of the ban from the university, she transformed her own bedroom into her first genetics laboratory to continue her research on the growth of nerve fibers in chick embryos.

In 1946, Rita was invited to Washington University in St. Louis, under the supervision of Professor Viktor Hamburger where she ended up staying for thirty years. There, in 1951, she discovered the so called “nerve growth factor” (NGF), a humoral factor that plays an essential role in the growth and differentiation of sensory and sympathetic nerve cells.

In 1956, Rita became an associate professor and a full professor in 1958. She helped establish the Institute of Cell Biology in Rome and became its first director in 1962.

For the NGF discovery, Rita Levi-Montalcini and her colleague Stanley Cohen were awarded the 1986 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine. She was one of the only 25 women to have won in the 93-year history of the Nobel Prize, and of those 25, only five have won in medicine and physiology. As the first Italian woman to receive a Nobel Prize in science, Rita became a role model not only for women aspiring to be scientists, but for every woman. Rita strongly supported women in her own lab and work. She firmly believed that women could do the work if given the opportunity.

She created an educational foundation in 1992 and set up the European Brain Research Institute in 2002. In 2001, Italy honoured her by making her senator for life. Rita continued conducting research every day, till the very end. She died in Rome on December 30, 2012, at the age of 103.

By Chiara Paganelli, WAVE Intern


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