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Rita Levi-Montalcini wins the Nobel Prize

October 13, 1986

Rita Levi-Montalcini’s pioneering work on nerve growth earned her the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine on October 13, 1986. Born in Turin, in northwestern Italy, on April 22, 1909, Levi-Montalcini had begun her research on nerve cells at the University of Turin. Banned from the university in a purge of Jews in 1938, and then forced to hide during the Nazi occupation of Italy, she immigrated to the United States and joined the faculty of Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri in 1946.

Levi-Montalcini went to St. Louis at the invitation of embryologist Viktor Hamburger; his support helped her to continue her work at a time when very few women worked in basic science research. It was at Washington University, in 1951, that Levi-Montalcini first hypothesized the existence of the nerve growth factor. Between 1953 and 1959, she worked with collaborator Stanley Cohen to identify nerve growth factor as a protein. For this work, Levi-Montalcini and Cohen shared the 1986 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Their work had significant effects on cancer research, and has also been important in work on Parkinson’s disease.

Levi-Montalcini retired from Washington University in 1977. Beginning in the 1960s, she also held an appointment at the National Laboratory for Cell Biology in Rome. After the Nobel Prize, Levi-Montalcini won many other honors. In 1986, she and Cohen were awarded the Albert Lasker Medical Research Award. The following year, she received the National Medal of Science, America’s highest scientific award. She also became the first woman ever named to membership in the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in Rome.

Rita Levi-Montalcini passed away on December 30, 2012. She had continued to work until shortly before her death. In 2009, as Levi-Montalcini celebrated her 100th birthday, she said, "At 100, I have a mind that is superior, thanks to experience, than when I was 20." Read more at: The Huffington Post.

Sources: http://nobelprize.org/medicine/laureates/1986/; http://nobelprize.org/medicine/laureates/1986/levi-montalcini-autobio.html; Jewish Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, pp. 832-833; Rita Levi-Montalcini, In Praise of Imperfection, My Life and Work (New York, 1988); New York Times, October 14, 1986; Huffington Post, April 18, 2009,.

Rita Levi-Montalcini at 100
Full image
Rita Levi-Montalcini, at age 100. Photo by Presidenza della Repubblica Italiana, 2009.

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Rita Levi-Montalcini wins the Nobel Prize." (Viewed on October 26, 2014) <http://jwa.org/thisweek/oct/13/1986/rita-levi-montalcini>.

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