Rita Levi-Montalcini

This weeks WiSE Wednesday will feature Rita Levi-Montalcini. Born in Turin, Italy, Rita’s father thought that women should be mothers and wives. Fortunately, Rita did not agree with her father and decided to study medicine and graduated from the University of Turin in 1936. Her work there included silver staining of nerve cells. During Mussolini’s reign, people of Jewish heritage could not work in universities and many other professions. Therefore, Rita had to study nerve cells outside the lab, and decided to set up a homemade laboratory in her bedroom. When the war ended, she worked as a doctor in a refugee camp before returning back to the University of Turin. Rita’s life changed when Viktor Hamburger, who saw Levi-Montalcini’s publications, invited her to visit Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri.

Rita arrived in Missouri in 1947, where she ended up becoming a professor at Washington University and gained dual citizenship between Italy and the US. Rita worked with Hamburger and studied nerve growth in embryos. She also worked with Stanley Cohen, with whom she isolated nerve growth factor, a protein that promoted nerve growth in developing cells. This work lead the two to win the 1986 Nobel Prize for Physics or Medicine. 

In 2002, Rita founded the European Brain Research Institute in Rome, Italy. She continued conducting research every day and died in Rome in 2012 at the age of 103!!

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