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.

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

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