Rita Levi-Montalcini

Rita Levi-Montalcini was born in Turin on April 22, 1909, the youngest of four children. She growth in a cultured Jewish family; her father, was an electrical engineer and gifted mathematician, and, her mother, a talented painter. Both influenced her high appreciation of intellectual pursuit. Her older brother was one of the most well-known Italian architects and a professor at the University of Turin.

Despite the high cultural level, his father believed that a professional career would interfere with the women’s duties, so none of the three daughters studied at the university.  However, when Rita was twenty, strongly moved by her motivation, achieved entering the medical school in Turin.

In 1936, she graduated from medical school with a summa cum laude degree in Medicine and Surgery and enrolled in the specialization in neurology and psychiatry. Sadly, at that time, Mussolini issued the “Manifesto per la Difesa della Razza”, signed by ten Italian ‘scientists’ barring academic and professional careers to non-Aryan Italian citizens. After a short period spent in Brussels as a guest of a neurological institute, Rita in 1940 returned to Turin to join her family and she decided to build a small research unit at home and installed it in my bedroom.

Rita was inspired in 1934 by an article by Viktor Hamburger reporting on the effects of limb extirpation in chick embryos. At that time, Giuseppe Levi, one of her mentors, went back to Turin, becoming her first and only assistant. Due to the war, they moved from Turin to Florence, where they lived underground. In 1944 Rita was hired as a medical doctor at the Anglo-American Headquarters and assigned to a camp of war refugees who were brought to Florence by the hundreds from the North where the war was still raging.

The war in Italy ended in May 1945. So, Rita returned with her family to Turin where she resumed the academic positions at the University. In 1946 Rita Levi-Montalcini was invited to work at Washington University in St. Louis, USA, with professor Viktor Hamburger. There she repeated the experiments which we had performed many years earlier in the chick embryo leading to the discovery of growth factors. Although it was planned as a brief experience, she remained there for 30 years as the excellent results of her research radically changed her life. Finally, she returned to Italy, as director of the Institute of Cell Biology of the Italian National Council of Research Rome. She has been politically active during her lifetime.

Rita Levi Montalcini and Stanley Cohen were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1986 for their discoveries of what is now known as growth factors. Their discovery has provided a deeper understanding of medical problems like deformities, senile dementia, delayed wound healing, and tumor diseases.

Rita Levi-Montalcini died in Rome, on December 30, 2012


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