7 Women Explorers You Should Know

I’ve become interested lately in women who are travelers and explorers. They have been motivated by different things, including adventure, exploration, study of cultures, or simply to exert their independence.  I’m planning several posts about individual women, but in the mean time, here is a list of 7 travelers you may not know.

Imagined portrait of Jeanne Baré dressed as a sailor, dating from 1817, after her death. (source)

Imagined portrait of Jeanne Baré dressed as a sailor, dating from 1817, after her death. (source)

Jeanne Baré (1740-1807), possibly the first western woman to sail across the Pacific, was a member of a round the world expedition led by the French explorer Bougainville. She disguised herself as a man and went on board as the valet to a man named Philibert Commerson, a doctor and botanist. Baré, whose name is sometimes spelled Baret, turned out to be an excellent botanist, and years later was granted a pension by the French government for her work as Commerson’s assistant. It’s not clear whether or not Commerson knew of her disguise, was complicit, or was in fact her lover, but when they reached Tahiti, the natives had no doubt about her gender and exposed her. Baré left no record of her own, but Bougainville says that she finished her voyage “very agreeably.”

Lady Hester Stanhope (source)

Lady Hester Stanhope (source)

Lady Hester Stanhope (1776-1839), after serving as chief of the household and hostess for her uncle, British Prime Minister, William Pitt the Younger, set sail for the Middle East in 1810, never to return. After being shipwrecked on Rhodes and losing all of her possessions, she chose to dress like a man, possibly to avoid having to wear a veil. In 1815, she convinced the Ottoman authorities to let her excavate at Ashkelon, north of Gaza. Controversially, when they unearthed a seven-foot marble statue, she ordered the workers to smash it and throw it into the sea. She eventually settled in Sidon, on the coast of present day Lebanon, where she lived until her death.

Ida Pfeiffer dressed for collecting (source)

Ida Pfeiffer dressed for collecting (source)

Ida Laura Pfeiffer (1797-1858) was an Austrian traveler, author, and member of the geographical societies of Berlin and Paris. Her father allowed her to wear boys clothing and participate in sports; he also gave her an education typically given to boys. Her first long trip was to Palestine and Egypt when she was five years old, but further travel had to wait until she had raised two sons. Beginning in 1842, Pfeiffer traveled extensively, eventually visiting the Middle East, Scandinavia, South America, Tahiti, China, India, Persia, Greece, South Africa, North America, and Madagascar. She financed her travels by writing very popular books about her journeys and collecting specimens for museums in Berlin and Vienna.

“Many will perhaps believe that I undertook so long a journey from vanity. I can only say in answer to this . . . that nothing but a natural wish for travel, a boundless desire of acquiring knowledge, could ever overcome the hardships, privations and dangers to which I have been exposed.” ~ Ida Pfeiffer in A Woman’s Voyage

Rose de Freycinet (1817-1820) dressed in men’s clothes to accompany her husband, Louis de Freycinet, on a trip around the world, aboard the Uranie. At least initially. Her husband had command of the ship, but was commissioned by the French navy, and it was illegal for women to travel aboard French naval vessels. Once at sea, there was nothing the navy could do until they reached the next port of call. Even then, no action was taken and Rose continued her journey, becoming the first woman to document an around-the-world voyage, through her diary. Her journal wasn’t published until 1927 in France and the first English translation was produced in 1962.

Alexandrine Tinné c. 1850 by Henri Auguste d'Ainecy Montpezat (source)

Alexandrine Tinné c. 1850 by Henri Auguste d’Ainecy Montpezat (source)

Alexandrine Tinné (1835-1869) was a Dutch explorer and wealthy heiress. After her father’s death, Alexandrine and her mother traveled extensively in Norway, Italy, the Middle East and Egypt. In 1862, they traveled with Theodor von Heuglin and Hermann Steudner on an expedition, into what is today South Sudan, which produced important scientific results, but ended with the death of several of the party due to illness, including Alexandrine’s mother. Refusing to return to the Netherlands, she remained in Cairo taking short trips for the next several years. In 1869, Alexandrine attempted a journey into the Sahara toward Lake Chad. Her goal was to meet the Touaregs, nomads of central Africa. However, she didn’t make it, because on August 1st, she was murdered, struck twice with a sword and left to bleed to death. Her body was never found.

Annie Taylor c. 1902 by William Carey (source)

Annie Taylor c. 1902 by William Carey (source)

Annie Royle Taylor (1855-1922) was a British explorer, Christian missionary, and the first western woman known to have visited Tibet. She joined the China Inland Mission in 1884 and was stationed in Lanzhou on the border of Tibet. However, she was recalled due to poor health. Coming from a wealthy family, Taylor didn’t need the support of the Mission, so after recovering, she went on her own to India, then to Sikkim to study the Tibetan language at a Buddhist monastery. In 1889, she and a young man named Pontso, who had converted to Christianity, traveled to Tianshui in China, where they established a mission. Several years later, in 1892, Taylor and Pontso entered Tibet and attempted to reach Lhasa. The cold was bitter and there was dissension in her party, but they managed to get to within a three day journey of Lhasa before the authorities apprehended them. A year later, she organized her own mission, the Tibetan Pioneer Mission, but it fell apart within a year. Taylor was persistent however, and in 1904 joined the Younghusband Expedition to Tibet.

Mary Kingsley, from her book "West African Studies", published in 1901 (source)

Mary Kingsley, from her book “West African Studies”, published in 1901 (source)

Mary Kingsley (1862-1900) was an explorer and writer who traveled extensively in West Africa. As with many young women during the 19th century, she was largely self-educated through her father’s library, where she preferred books on science and about explorers. After nursing both of her parents, who died in 1892, she was left with an inheritance which allowed her to travel. She chose West Africa, and during her initial trip to Sierra Leone and Angola, lived with local people and learned survival skills for the jungle. Her second trip was devoted to studying traditional religious practices and collecting zoological samples. On returning to England, Kingsley lectured frequently about African life and culture. She was critical of missionaries for their attempts to convert the African natives and force them to change aspects of their culture such as polygamy, and to some extent of British Imperialism, although her views are still debated today.

Resources
Forster, Honore (January 2000), “Voyaging Through Strange Seas: Four Women Travellers in the Pacific”, National Library of Australia News
West African Studies by Mary Kingsley at Internet Archive
On Top of the World: Five Women Explorers in Tibet by Luree Miller
Star of the Morning: The Extraordinary Life of Lady Hester Stanhope by Kirsten Ellis

Zewditu I – Empress of Ethiopia

Empress Zewditu (source)

Empress Zewditu (source)

Zewditu I, Empress of Ethiopia, was the first internationally recognized female head of state in Africa during the 19th and 20th centuries. She reigned from 1916 to 1930 and was the first Ethiopian Empress regnant since Makeda, the legendary Queen of Sheba, as well as the last Empress regnant.

Born on April 29, 1876, Zewditu was given the name Askala Maryam at her baptism in the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo church. Her parents were Negus (King) Menelik of Shewa and his consort Weyziro (Lady) Abechi, although, she was raised primarily by her father and his consort Baffana, because of her mother’s death when she was young. She had an excellent relationship with her father and also with the woman her father married, and who became Empress, Taytu Betul. Menelik had three acknowledged children, Zewditu, her older sister Shewa Regga, and a son who died in infancy.

Beginning in 1886 at the age of ten, Zewditu had three political marriages which were short lived, beginning with Ras Araya Selassie Yohannes, heir of Emperor Yohannes IV. This was an attempt to cement an alliance between the two rulers which didn’t last, but Araya Selassie died two years later without any children by Zewditu and she returned to her father’s home. In spite of the conflict, Yohannes had high regard for Zewditu and sent her home with a valuable gift of cattle.

The next two marriages ended in death and divorce. In 1900, Taytu arranged a marriage between her nephew, Gugsa Wale, and Zewditu. Gugsa Welle was a poet and book lover, and the marriage appears to have been happy. Zewditu had no surviving children, although she had a daughter by her second marriage who died in 1895 at age four.

Menelik II (source)

Menelik II (source)

In 1899, Yohannis IV died at the Battle of Metemma and Menelik took the Emperor’s throne as Menelik II, making Zewditu a possible fourth in the line of succession. The first two candidates were deemed unsuitable by Menelik, the third was Lij Iyasu, the son of Menelik’s oldest daughter, followed by Zewditu. After having a stroke in 1908, Menelik named Lij Iyasu as his heir, but because he was only 13 he also appointed Tessema Nadew as regent. However, Empress Taytu undermined his choice, hoping to substitute Zewditu or her husband Ras Gugsa Welle, Taytu’s nephew, as successor.

After a series of strokes, Menelik became paralyzed and Iyasu was acknowledged as heir, but he wasn’t considered the best choice for Emperor. He was impulsive, egocentric and prone to be cruel. After Tessema Nadew died in 1911, Iyasu refused another regent. During the next few years, there were several coup attempts as well as an attempt to poison Iyasu. Finally, in December of 1913 Menelik died, but when informed of the death, Iyasu continued playing a mock battle game. He also refused to allow any form of public mourning for the Emperor.

Empress Taytu and Zewditu were both immediately expelled from the palace, but it was a month before word of the death made its way to the aristocracy. Iyasu was uninterested in the day-to-day running of the government, which continued under his grandfather’s cabinet of ministers and Fitawrarri Hapte Giorgis Denagde, the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces and minister of war. Many of his activities were deemed dangerous to the future of the country, especially during WWI, and his frequent trips away from the capital gave the ministers time to plot his downfall. On September 27, 1916, Iyasu was deposed in favor of Zewditu and she was proclaimed Empress by the nobility and the church.

Although Zewditu was proclaimed “Empress, Queen of Kings, Elect of God, and Lion of Judah,” she initially wasn’t allowed to exercise power alone. Her cousin Ras Tafari Makonnen was appointed heir to the throne and regent. Also, distrustful of the Empress Dowager Taytu and her relatives, the aristocracy forced Zewditu to separate from her husband. Gugsa was sent to the north and eventually given the governorship of Beghemidir, although he was denied the title of king.

Taytu Betul c. 1886 (source)

Taytu Betul c. 1886 (source)

Iyasu escaped arrest and went into hiding. His father King Michael of Wollo raised an army and declared war, but was defeated quickly and made to pay homage to Zewditu. Iyasu was found a few months later, and imprisoned at Sellae. Zewditu made sure that both Iyasu and his father were treated with dignity and kept in luxury, although Iyasu always referred to her as his “poor naive aunt” for her kindness.

Zewditu’s reign was a constant struggle between the reforming impulses of Ras Tafari and the more conservative wishes of Zewditu, Fitawrarri,the cabinet and the Orthodox Church. In the face of the colonizing of the African continent, Ras Tafari believed that modernization was the key to remaining independent. The conservatives disagreed and took a more isolationist stance. In many ways Zewditu was caught between the two. She was racked with guilt from taking the throne. Devoted to her father, she saw Iyasu’s reign as his stated wish and felt she had gone against that.

As time went on, the conservatives, who had put Ras Tafari in the position as regent, pressed him to consult Zewditu before instituting reforms. They also put pressure on her to resist him. Eventually, Ras Tafari had had enough, and with the support of the Mahil Safari military division, forced her to disband the cabinet of ministers and allow him to put his supporters in their places. He then was able to put reforms into place such as the abolition of slavery and entry into the League of Nations.

These reforms were of little interest to Zewditu who was a pious woman. She retreated into a life of prayer and penance. She was responsible for building several churches, hosted a visit by the Patriarch of Alexandria, and visited the Empress Dowager Taytu often. By 1928, there was little power left to the conservatives and a small uprising was unsuccessful. Zewditu was compelled to grant Tafari the title of Negus, and he was in effect the ruler of Ethiopia.

One final attempt was made when Ras Gugsa Welle raised an army against Negus Tafari and marched for Addis Ababa. Zewditu frantically tried to get him to back down, but he refused. Negus Tafari sent an army north and they met on the Anchiem plain on March 31, 1930. Tafari, now having access to modern military methods, flew planes over Ras Gugsa’s army, first to drop leaflets declaring Gugsa a rebel and promising excommunication from the church for those who participated, and second to drop a bomb. By the end of the day, Ras Gugsa’s army was defeated and he was dead.

Two days later, on April 2, Empress Zewditu also died. She suffered from diabetes and at the time was ill with typhoid, however, speculation about the cause of her death continues today. She was fasting for Lent which may have weakened her, then she was submerged in cold holy water to reduce her fever. Some say she died of shock from this treatment, others say that she died of grief when she was informed of the death of her husband. Still others say that she was poisoned as soon as victory was assured. However, there is no firm evidence to back up these theories and later her Swiss doctor gave her cause of death as diabetes.

Regardless of how she died, Her Imperial Majesty, Empress Zewditu, was greatly mourned and remembered for her piety, generosity, and devotion to her father’s memory. She was also the only monarch in over a century to be given a state funeral after which she was laid to rest in the Masoleum Church of St. Mary Ba-eta with her father and Empress Taytu.

Empress Zewditu I on her coronation day with Crown Prince Ras Tafari Makonnen (source)

Empress Zewditu I on her coronation day with Crown Prince Ras Tafari Makonnen (source)

 

Resources
Empress Zewditu – Queen of Kings
Zewditu, Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Saint Pelagia: From High Heels to a Hair Shirt

“She seemed to be clothed in nothing but gold and pearls and other precious stones. Even her feet were covered with gold and pearls.”

Pelagia with her courtesans as Nonnus prays for her (source)

Pelagia with her entourage as Nonnus prays for her. (source)

One day in Antioch, sometime in 341 CE*, the beautiful courtesan Pelagia went for a stroll with her entourage. She was decked out in jewels and costly robes, surrounded by servants, and filled the air with the scent of musk and other perfumes. According to Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople, she was a famous actress who wove her spell not only by her beauty, but by sorcery also, and “went beyond all in lasciviousness.”

While out and about, Pelagia happened to pass by a group of eight bishops who had been summoned to a council by the Bishop of Antioch. At the time, one of the visiting bishops, Nonnus, was expounding on the Bible, but he couldn’t hold the attention of the brothers because they were all dazzled by Pelagia’s beauty. However, as good men of God, when they saw that her head was uncovered and her body was clearly visible through her clothes, the brothers turned their heads away from the “ostentatious sinner.” All, that is, except Nonnus.

Nonnus was considered a “most holy bishop.” He had been taken out of the monastery at Tabennisi and made a bishop “because of his incomparably beautiful life.” When Pelagia passed by he stared intently until she was gone. Only then did he turn to his brother bishops and say “Weren’t you delighted to see such beauty as hers?” He then began to cry and again asked his question. Nonnus explained that he was delighted with her beauty because it made him think about all the time and effort she put into her appearance, for admirers who would come and go. He then asked why they didn’t put the same effort into pleasing God, who was eternal.

The next Sunday, Nonnus was asked to preach, and Pelagia happened to be in the congregation. She began to cry and told two of her servants to follow Nonnus when he left to find out where he lived. She then sent him a message.

“O holy servant of Christ, I am a sinful woman and servant of the devil. I have heard that your God, who upholds the arc of the heavens, came down to earth not for the sake of the righteous but to save sinners. . . . So if you really are a true disciple of Christ do not turn your face away from me, for through you I long to see the Savior, through you perhaps I may get a glimpse of his holy face.”

She also reminded him that Christ was a friend of publicans, talked with sinners, and showed mercy to the Samaritan woman at the well.

Nonnus wrote back that God knew her, who she was, and what she wanted, but he was a humble servant of God and a sinner, so he couldn’t meet with her alone. If she truly wanted to be virtuous, she would meet with him before all the other bishops. She was willing and went to the meeting and asked them to make her a Christian.

They told her that a harlot couldn’t be baptized unless there was someone to guarantee that she wouldn’t fall back into her sinful ways. Pelagia was evidently a very smart woman. She made Nonnus responsible for her by saying “You would be denying God and worshiping idols if you do not today give me new birth as a bride of Christ and offer me to God.” Nonnus, a smart man, agreed and sent a message to the bishop of the city and asked that a deaconess be sent. The deaconess, the lady Romana, dressed Pelagia in a white baptismal gown and she was baptized that day.

Several days later, Pelagia had one of her slaves inventory all of her gold, silver and costly clothes. She then sent for Nonnus and gave these all to him. He summoned a steward and told him to distribute the goods to the poor, widows, and orphans, that none of it was to go to the church. Pelagia then set all of her slaves free.

Eight days later, when Pelagia was supposed to take off her baptismal gown, she got up in the middle of the night, removed it and put on a coarse tunic which Nonnus had given her. She then left without saying anything to anyone. In fact, she was never seen in Antioch again. Romana was distraught, but Nonnus comforted her saying she had chosen the “good portion” like Mary in the gospels. Nonnus evidently knew something.

Three or four years later, Jacob the Deacon, who worked with Nonnus and had been with him in Antioch, asked his permission to go to Jerusalem. Nonnus agreed and said, “My advice to you, brother deacon, is that when you get to Jerusalem, you make enquiries there about a certain brother Pelagius, a monk and a eunuch who has been enclosed in solitude there for many years. Visit him. I am sure he will be of great benefit to you.”

Pelagius lived in a small cell on the Mount of Olives and had a great reputation as a man of God among the brothers. Jacob visited him and asked for prayers for Nonnus and himself. Several days later, he decided to visit Pelagius again and couldn’t get an answer by knocking on the small window of the cell. So, he pushed open the window and saw that Pelagius was dead; he then took the news back to the monks in Jerusalem.

The monks came and removed the body of Pelagius, treating it with great respect as that of a holy man. But when they began to annoint the body for burial, they discovered that Pelagius was a woman! Pelagius was in fact Pelagia. Jacob had not recognized her because of the changes in her face due to a severe life of deprivation and fasting.

The brothers tried to keep it a secret, but word got out and the people rejoiced. It was especially news among the women, who came from the monasteries of virgins in Jericho and Jordan. They followed her funeral procession saying, “Glory to our Lord Jesus Christ who has hidden so many riches upon earth, not only among men but also among women.”

Pelagia is the name of several saints, all probably based on legend. Chrysostom was a contemporary of the converted “harlot”, although he doesn’t actually give her name. But, there was surely a women with this basic story, who is given the name Pelagia in the accounts in the resources below. The Syrian martyrology gives October 8 as the feast day for Pelagia of Antioch.

* The Synod of Antioch was called in 341 CE.

Resources
Select Narratives of Holy Women by John the Stylite translated by Agnes Smith Lewis (as written above the Sinaitic Palimpsest)
The Life of St Pelagia the Harlot by Jacob the Deacon
St. Chrysostom: Homilies on the Gospel of Saint Matthew, Homily LXVII
Pelagia“. Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 1913.

Nellie Bly Meets Julia Grant – In Her Own Words

This brief article appeared in Godey’s Lady’s Book in December 1888 in preparation for a full-length article by Nellie Bly in the January issue.

The following extract from an interview with Mrs. Gen. Grant by Nellie Bly , printed in the N.Y. WORLD, October 28th, will show our subscribers who Nellie Bly is:

“I was somewhat nervous about my visit to Mrs. Grant. I only knew of her as the wife of the famous general; the successful hostess for eight years in the White House; the woman who had, in making a tour of the world, been received as a queen in every civilized land.

Would anyone wonder, then, at my apprehension, when women of so much meaner light so often try to parry all attempts at approach? But I was wrong.”

“My son tells me,” Mrs. Grant said, with a pleasant laugh, after greetings had been exchanged and she had drawn me by the hand to a chair and seated herself on a lounge, most cordially near, “that Nellie Bly is a little scamp”—

“Oh, no, no,” I broke in, but holding her finger up playfully, she continued:

“That, not being content with exposing the Blackwell’s Island Insane Asylum—yes, and benefiting it wondrously—and exposing Phelps, the great Albany lobbyist, she needs must go to Central Park and allow herself to be ‘mashed,’ and then tell all about it in THE WORLD , so that now none of the men dare wink at a girl while out driving, lest she be Nellie Bly .”

“Why, that’s a shame,” I replied, and we both laughed, I fear not altogether in pity of the men.

Nellie Bly’ s first article will appear in the January issue of GODEY’S. Be sure your subscription is sent in on time, to get this issue.

Source
“Who is Nellie Bly?” Godey’s Lady’s Book, December, 1888
Transcription: Accessible Archives

Photo source: Julia Grant, Brady-Handy Photograph Collection (Library of Congress)
Photo source: Nellie Bly, H. J. Myers, photographer (Library of Congress)

Rita Levi-Montalcini: Nobel Prize Winning Neurobiologist

Rita Levi-Montalcini, 2009, Photo: Presidenza della Repubblica (source)

Rita Levi-Montalcini in 2009, Photo credit: Presidenza della Repubblica (source)

During World War II, Rita Levi-Montalcini, as a Jewish woman, was forced to leave her research position at the University of Turin. However, she didn’t leave her research behind. Using homemade instruments, a basic microscope, an incubator built by her brother, and chicken eggs, she spent the war years observing the growth of nerve cells. This clandestine work laid the foundation for her discovery of Nerve Growth Factor which eventually led to receiving the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1986.

Rita Levi was born April 22, 1909 into a wealthy Jewish family in Turin, Italy. She and her twin, Paola, were the youngest of the four children of Adam Levi and Adele Montalcini Levi. The Levi family was well established in Turin, since the Roman empire, and with so many relatives of the same name, Rita, who never married, eventually added her mother’s maiden name to distinguish herself professionally.

Adam Levi was an electrical engineer and an authoritarian with a quick temper. He had definite ideas of what was appropriate for girls, which was training to be good wives and mothers, so after Rita and Paola completed the 4th grade, they were sent to finishing school. Two of Adam’s aunts had doctorate degrees, one in literature and the other in mathematics. They also had unhappy marriages, which Adam attributed to their advanced education.

Rita’s mother Adele, an accomplished artist, was reserved and submissive. Perhaps for this reason, Rita wasn’t interested in marriage. Or perhaps it was because she considered her classes at finishing school “mindless”. Regardless, she had no interest in “children or babies” and “never remotely accepted [her] role as wife or mother.” Ever since her beloved nurse, Giovanna, died of stomach cancer, she had wanted to be a doctor, but saw no hope of attending medical school.

Museum of Human Anatomy, University of Turin (source)

Museum of Human Anatomy, University of Turin (source)

Finally at the age of 20, Rita had the courage to tell her father about her desire to be a physician. Although he disagreed, with her mother’s support she convinced him to hire tutors to help her prepare for the entrance exams to the university. Studying with her cousin Eugenia, they hired two tutors, one for mathematics and science, another for Latin and Greek. They studied subjects such as history and literature alone. After eight months of study, both Rita and Eugenia passed their exams and in 1930 Rita entered the University of Turin as a medical student.

At the university, Rita studied under another quick-tempered man, Giuseppe Levi, a leading histologist. Along with Rita, two other students of Levi went on to receive Nobel Prizes, Salvador Luria and Renato Dulbecco. Rita finished her degrees in 1936 and began to specialize in neurology, now working as Levi’s assistant, but in 1938 that changed when a new law forced Jews out of the university and professional jobs. Rather than emigrate from Italy, Rita’s family chose to remain.

Viktor Hamburger c. 1933 (source)

Viktor Hamburger c. 1933 (source)

For a time, Rita practiced medicine among the poor, but she couldn’t write prescriptions. Then one day she read a journal article written by Victor Hamburger, one of the founders of developmental neurobiology, who happened to do research using chick embryos. This gave Rita the idea to start her own home laboratory. When Giuseppe Levi joined Rita in her work, her family’s home also became a meeting place for his other students.

In spite of her brother Gino’s name being on a most-wanted list for resistance activities, she was able to keep her activities hidden. But, when bombing began in Turin in 1941, the Levi family moved to the country and Rita had to rebuild her lab there. Supplies were more difficult to get, so she often rode her bicycle through the countryside asking farmers for eggs for “her babies.” When the country was invaded in 1943, the family moved again and using forged documents, found a place to hide in Florence, where they remained until Italy was liberated in August 1944.

Rita was unable to publish her research in Italy during the war because her name was Jewish, so she published in Belgian and Swiss journals. This time it was Rita who came to the attention of Victor Hamburger. In 1947, Hamburger was the director of the zoology department at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, and after reading about her experiments asked Rita to visit for a semester. Some of her results contradicted his, and he wanted to know which was accurate. When she was able to duplicate her results in the laboratory, Hamburger offered her a research position. Rita accepted and remained there for almost three decades.

Levi-Montalcini and Hamburger were a good match. He recognized that she brought expertise in neurology that he didn’t have, and he supplied experimental embryology expertise. By 1953, Rita’s research had convinced her of the existence of some substance which caused nerve fibers to grow and that without it they would die. She now needed the help of a biochemist, so she began working with Stanley Cohen, a post-doctoral fellow at Washington University.

Stanley Cohen (source)

Stanley Cohen (source)

Once again, Rita had a good working partner in both style and substance. Together she and Cohen isolated Nerve Growth Factor (NGF) first by using mouse tumors, then snake venom, and finally the salivary glands of male mice. They were successful, but ultimately, Hamburger couldn’t justify keeping a full-time biochemist on staff in a zoology department, so in 1959 Cohen moved on to Vanderbilt University, where he was able to isolate Epidermal Growth Factor (EGF). Levi-Montalcini and Cohen shared the 1986 Nobel Prize in Physiology for their results, discovering NGF and EGF, respectively.

Without Cohen, Rita felt at loose ends. She was also homesick, especially for Paola. In 1961, she received a National Science Foundation grant which allowed her to open the Research Center of Neurobiology in Rome. From 1961 to 1969, she alternated spending six months in Rome with six months in St. Louis. In 1969, with the help of a friend, she was able to open the Laboratory of Cellular Biology which allowed her to return to Italy full time.

Although Rita Levi-Montalcini officially retired from the Laboratory of Cellular Biology in 1979, she continued to guest lecture. She also stayed active in science and politics. In 2001 she was appointed  Senator for Life by the President of Italy, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, and in 2002, she founded the European Brain Research Institute. After a long and very full life, Rita Levi-Montalcini died on December 30, 2012 at the age of 103.

Resources
Nobel Prize Women in Science by Sharon Bertsch McGrayne
Rita Levi-Montalcini“, Jewish Women’s Archive
Paola Levi-Montalcini“, Jewish Women’s Archive
Rita Levi-Montalcini“, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved April 23, 2015

Read about other Famous Women Mathematicians and Scientists.