1909 – 2012
Born in Turin on April 22, 1909, Rita Levi-Montalcini was the daughter of Adamo Levi, an electrical engineer and mathematician, and Adele Montalcini, a painter. Her parents had four children—the eldest, Gino (b. 1902), who later became a well-known architect; Anna (b. 1904); and finally Rita and her twin sister Paola Levi-Montalcini, who became a well-known artist.
A conservative man, Adamo Levi opposed higher education for girls, believing that a woman’s place was in the home as a wife and mother. Nevertheless he agreed to Rita’s wish to study medicine at the University of Turin at the beginning of the 1930s. Levi-Montalcini studied with Giuseppe Levi (1872–1965), a leading histologist and lecturer from whom she learned the systems and research methods that accompanied her throughout her life.
Levi-Montalcini’s fellow students included Salvador Luria and Renato Dulbecco, who later won the Nobel Prize in physiology. Upon completing degrees in medicine and surgery summa cum laude in 1936, she began to study neurology and psychiatry, though she wavered between continuing her medical studies and pure research. The race laws of 1938 prevented her from continuing any kind of specialized study, and in 1939, on the invitation of the institute for neurological research in Brussels, she traveled to Belgium to participate in a research project there. However, fearing a German takeover of Belgium, she returned to Italy in 1939.
Faced with two choices—immigration to the United States or remaining in Italy under the restrictions caused by the race laws—Montalcini’s family chose the latter. Levi-Montalcini decided to continue independent scientific research, improvising a laboratory in her room in her parents’ home. Together with her lecturer, Levi, who had also returned from a short stay in Belgium, she conducted experiments on the nervous systems of chicken embryos. These resulted in interesting discoveries which she published in several papers. Victor Hamburger’s research on the nervous system helped her a great deal and served as her model. Among other things, her home became a meeting place for Guiseppe Levi’s students.
When Italy entered the war on the side of Germany and the Allies began to bomb the country, the heavy bombardments of Turin in 1941 and 1942 forced Levi-Montalcini and her family to leave the city and seek refuge in a village. There she rebuilt her laboratory under more difficult and primitive conditions than before, continuing her research on fertilized eggs which she obtained from local farmers (claiming she needed fertilized eggs for better nutrition for her children). These she warmed in a simple home incubator. Despite her primitive working conditions, she succeeded in continuing her research the entire time, publishing her results in the United States after the war.
With the German invasion of Italy in September 1943 and the establishment of the Fascist Salò Republic, roundups of Jews began and Levi-Montalcini’s family was compelled to find a hiding place in Florence, where they remained until Italy was liberated in August 1944. After the liberation, Levi-Montalcini worked for several months as a physician in an Allied DP camp. When the war ended in May 1945 she went back to Turin with her family and returned to work as a research assistant for her teacher, Giuseppe Levi, at the University of Turin. In 1947 Victor Hamburger, then director of the zoology department at Washington University in St. Louis, invited Levi-Montalcini to join him. Since the papers she wrote together with her teacher during the war contradicted his own findings, Hamburger wished to conduct joint experiments to learn more about the nervous system. When the experiments proved the truth of Levi-Montalcini’s conclusions Hamburger offered her a post as lecturer at the university, where she remained for twenty-six years, continuing with research in neurobiology and on cancer cells. For years she worked with the researcher Stanley Cohen, searching for “causes of growth,” during which time she discovered Nerve Growth Factor (NGF), which is responsible for the development and distribution of nerve cells. She won several prizes throughout the world for her significant research, including the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1986 for her discovery of NGF. (At the same time, her colleague Stanley Cohen received the Nobel Prize for his discovery of Epidermal Growth Factor, or EGF.) Since her return to Italy she has worked in the Institute of Neurobiology, which belongs to the National Council of Research (CNR).
Levi-Montalcini was the first woman to be appointed to the board of the Enciclopedia Italiana, where she served from 1993 to 1998. Throughout her life she combined research with wide-scale public activity. In 1999 she was appointed ambassador to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), as part of which she published a great deal about hunger and engaged in broad public activity to combat world hunger. In 2001 the Italian senate appointed her a senator for life.
Il messagio Nervoso. New York: 1975; NGF: Apertura di una nuova frontiera della neurobiologia. Rome/Naples: 1989; Senz’olio contro vento. Milan: 1996; L’asso nella manica. Milan: 1998; Cantico di una vita. Milan: 1999; La galassia mente. Milan: 2000; In Praise of Imperfection: My Life and Work (autobiography). New York: 1988.