Powerful Ladies of the 80's: Rita Levi-Montalcini

6th October 2017

Rita Levi-Montalcini 

Rita Levi-Montalcini was born in Turin, Italy, on April 22, 1909. Her parents were Adamo Levi, an electrical engineer and gifted mathematician, and Adele Montalcini, a talented painter. Though her father believed that a professional career would interfere with the duties of a wife and mother, later on, she asked to be permitted to further proceed in a professional career. She graduated with a degree in medicine and surgery in 1936. She then worked at the university, during which time she learned a technique for silver staining nerve cells that made the cells clearly visible under a microscope.

Rita Levi-Montalcini continued her research despite the challenges. She set up a laboratory in her bedroom and studied the growth of nerve fibers in chicken embryos even as the World War II raged on.

In 1943, the Germans invaded Italy. Turin became a dangerous place to live in. She along with her family fled to Florence. She set up a second laboratory in their temporary residence where she continued her work.

She successfully isolated Nerve growth factor (NGF), a neuropeptide primarily involved in the regulation of growth, maintenance, proliferation, and survival of certain target neurons. Her observations of certain cancerous tissues in chick embryos led to this achievement. This discovery offered possible treatments for conditions such as Alzheimer's disease, infertility, and cancer. 

In 1986, Rita Levi-Montalcini and Stanley Cohen were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine "for their discoveries of growth factors." The same year the duo was also awarded the Albert Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research.

Levi-Montalcini did not rest on her laurels after winning a Nobel Prize. Having already helped establish the Institute of Cell Biology in Rome, Italy, in 1962, she went on to create an educational foundation in 1992 and set up the European Brain Research Institute in 2002. Even toward the end of her life, Levi-Montalcini continued conducting research every day.

She lived an extraordinarily long life and became the first Nobel laureate ever to reach a 100th birthday. She was feted with a 100th birthday party at Rome's city hall on 22 April 2009. She died on 30 December 2012 at the age of 103.

Despite her circumstances, Rita persisted with her work - no excuses; head down and bum up!