Rita, the pioneer of neurobiology
Rita Levi-Montalcini was the first woman to be admitted to the Accademia Pontificia (Pontifical Academy of Sciences) and the only Italian to receive the Nobel Prize in Medicine, in 1986.
The Prize motivation states: “The discovery of the Nerve Growth Factor (NGF) in the beginning of the 1950s is a fascinating example of how a skilled observer can create a concept out of apparent chaos. Until this time, experimental neurobiologists did not understand how the development of the nervous system was regulated to result in the final complete innervation of the body”.
Everything in life came easily to me. Difficulties to me were like water off a duck’s back.
Rita Levi Montalcini was born in 1909 in Turin to a Jewish family. Her father Adamo Levi, was an electrical engineer and mathematician, and her mother, Adele Montalcini, was a painter.
Both parents were well-read and instilled an appreciation for intellectual research in their children. However, according to the typical dictates of Victorian morality, at home all decisions were taken by the head of the family, who could not imagine his daughters pursuing professional careers.
In 1930, despite the negative opinion of her father, Rita enrolled in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Turin, where in 1936 she graduated cum laude. It is to be noted that there were two other future Nobel Prize winners among her university colleagues and friends, Salvador Luria and Renato Dulbecco. All three of them were students of the famous neurohistologist Giuseppe Levi.
In 1938, following the racial laws issued by Italy that barred Jews from attending and teaching at Universities, Rita moved to Brussels for a short period of time. When she returned to Turin, she decided to continue to do research, setting up a small secret laboratory in her own bedroom.
Once the war ended, Rita moved to the United States, where she carried out fundamental experiments that, in 1954, led her, together with the biochemist Stanley Cohen, to identify the Nerve Growth Factor (NGF), a key protein for the development of the nervous system. Rita and Stanley received the Nobel Prize due to this discovery in 1986.
The awarding of the Nobel Prize did not put a brake on Rita’s energy and enthusiasm, but in actual fact gave her more strength. It encouraged her to dedicate her life with great passion to important social issues, like teaching women and female students from Africa, the promotion of scientific research among young people in the most disadvantaged regions of Italy, and the fight against discrimination, racism and poverty.
In 2001, Rita was nominated Senator for Life of the Italian Republic. In 2002, she founded the EBRI (European Brain Research Institute), an international research institute dedicated entirely to neuroscience.
She died in Rome in 2012 at the age of 103.
The body does whatever it wants. I am not my body; I am my mind.
Rita always considered herself to be a free thinker and chose to not have a husband and a family so that she could dedicate her life completely to science.
With her strong character, immense stubbornness and extraordinary vitality, Rita did not find it right to live only for research and teaching, because she was convinced that scientists ought to also concern themselves with ethical and social problems.
After being awarded the Nobel Prize, one of her goals was to encourage an international network of female solidarity that fought against injustice and racism, so that women all over the world could become more self-confident and take the reins over their lives.
In 2008, she presented her book Le tue antenate. Donne pioniere nella società e nella scienza dall’antichità ai giorni nostri (Your female ancestors. Pioneering women in society and science from ancient times to our times) co-written with Giuseppina Tripodi, with these words:
I wrote a book for young people, I published it with a publishing company for young people. I am proud of it. We entitled it ‘Your female ancestors’. It talks about pioneering women. Those who had to fight against prejudice and male chauvinism to get into laboratories, who risked seeing their key discoveries snatched from them and attributed to men, who took on families and research.
In 1947, Rita accepted the invitation from the neuro-embriologist Viktor Hamburger to come to the Washington University of St. Louis to continue her research. At that time neurobiology did not yet exist as a discipline and it was thanks to her work that the foundations were laid for this new branch of science.
In 1952, Rita, together with the biochemist Stanley Cohen, managed to isolate a substance taken from mice tumors that caused vigorous growth in the nervous system of chicken embryos.
The two researchers continued to work intensively and discovered the Nerve Growth Factor (NGF), a protein found in both the nervous system and in other parts of the human body, essential in the development of neurons during the embryonic period and with a key role in the survival of nerve cells.
The discovery of NGF turned out to be of fundamental importance for the treatment of neuro-vegetative diseases, and for a better understanding of the development of the nervous system, its differentiation and regeneration possibilities.
Discover the other stories of the women who changed the history of medicine
Nina Chhita is the artist and illustrator of the Instagram account @nina.draws.scientists, which focuses on contemporary and historical trailblazing scientists, who happen to be women. She initially started the account as a way to discover historical figures, and as a scientist herself, naturally gravitated towards scientists. Articles have since been written about Nina in the BBC news and Mental Floss. Her illustrations have appeared on the social media sites of the University of Oxford, the University of Bath, Dementias Platform UK, and in a YouTube video by Vanessa Hill. She lives in Vancouver where she works as a medical writer creating educational content for healthcare professionals.