Scientist Spotlight: Rita Levi-Montalcini

Researching for this blog post, I was first blown away by the number of reputable websites that came up after I Googled Rita Levi-Montalicini, but I was even more impressed by everything Rita accomplished.

Born April 22, 1909 in Italy to a wealthy Jewish family, Rita was raised in a Victorian way of life. Rita’s father, a notable mathematician and electrical engineer, loved his family dearly but also believed women’s roles were as mother and wives, not as professional workers. Rita, felt she could not live the expected feminine life and be enrolled in medical school in Turin. In 1936, at the age of 27, Rita graduated summa cum laude from the University of Turn medical school with a degree in Medicine and Surgery. She began a what was supposed to be a three-year specialization in neurology and psychiatry but this was cut short because of World War II. Due to her Jewish heritage, in 1938, Rita was barred from practicing medicine. However, this did not stop Rita in her quest for scientific greatness.

In the Spring of 1940, Rita set up a makeshift lab in her bedroom. Inspired by the work of Viktor Hamburger, she used sewing needles to dissect the nervous systems of embryonic chicks from the eggs she got from farmers. Even in these seemingly poor conditions from research, Rita could see the development of the motor neurons.

Viktor Hamburg ended up inviting Rita to work in his lab for a semester at Washington University in St. Louis in the United States in 1946. This “semester” turned in to 30 years of teaching a research, positions as Associate Professor and Full Professors, and dual citizenship with the United States and Italy.

In St. Louis, Rita and Stanley Cohen discovered the nerve growth factor (NGF) which is important in the growth and development of nerve cells and fibers in the peripheral nervous system. Although this discovery was not initially recognized and appreciated, the scientific community eventually realized all the possible cures that could come from growth factors.

Rita began missing her home country and in 1962, established the Institute of Cell Biology in Rome. From then on, she divided her time between Rome and St. Louis.

In 1986, Rita and Stanley won the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine for their work with NGF and in 1987 Rita was awarded the National Medal of Science. Rita’s work did not stop here, however. In 1992 Rita started an education foundation and in 2001 was named an Italian Senator for Life for her work toward equality and contributions to science. A year later, in 2002, Rita established the European Brain institute.

Pope Paul VI appointed Rita to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and instead of kissing the Holy Father’s hand as per protocol, Rita simply shook it.

As a woman who never gives up, Rita performed research until her death at the age of…. wait for it….103! Never letting anything stop her, once when her luggage was lost she lectured in a pressed nightgown and she even brought lab mice onto a plane to continue her research.

I don’t even know how to end this post but WOW. Rita was truly an inspiration and someone who stood tall in the face of adversity. She knew what she wanted and who she was and did not let anyone make her think otherwise. I am glad I got to meet her through writing this blog post. I will end with one of her quotes and something we all need to remember, “Above all, don’t fear difficult moments. The best comes from them.”


For more about Rita’s amazing and long life:

Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Have Changed the World, Rachel Ignotofsky

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