Rita Levi-Montalcini

Rita Levi-Montalcini

“Above all, don’t fear difficult moments. The best comes from them.” – Rita Levi Montalcini

Today women have occupied a greater name in the field of science, proving that they are capable of equating men in their abilities to conduct scientific research. They have taken significant positions in the scientific field as compared to the more traditional roles: mother, wife, and homemaker that existed in the past centuries.

Italian Neurophysiologist, Rita Levi-Montalcini is one exceptional woman, who through her pioneering contribution and hard work has set an amazing example for other women to follow her footsteps. She won the 1986 Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine which she shared with the biochemist Stanley Cohen, for their discovery of nerve growth factor (NGF), a protein that causes developing cells to grow by stimulating surrounding nerve tissue. At 101 years, she has the stamina that many younger people might envy. On her workdays Rita gives equal time to her namesake brain research laboratory and her foundation to support African women with potential for scientific accomplishment.


Early Life, Education and Career Achievements:

Rita Levi-Montalcini was born on April 22, 1909 in Turin to a Sephardic Jewish family. She was the youngest child of her parents, Adamo Levi, an electrical engineer and talented mathematician, and Adele Montalcini, a painter. She enrolled in the University of Turin in 1930 to study medicine, despite her father’s belief that women should not pursue careers. After completing her graduation in 1936, she went to work as Giuseppe Levi’s assistant, but her academic career was cut short by Benito Mussolini’s 1938 Manifesto of Race and following the introduction of laws barring Jews from intellectual and professional careers.

“This led me to the joy of working, no longer, unfortunately, in university institutes, but in a bedroom.”

Dr. Levi-Montalcini simply constructed a laboratory in her own home and conducted research in secrecy. For the next few years conducted experiments on chicken embryos, she would cook and eat the remaining yolks. While acting as a doctor in Italian refugee camps, she took out time to publish her research on the sources of nerve constructs.

Subsequent to the Germans invasion of Italy, she left for Florence and lived underground with her family. When the war ended, she accepted a one-year residency at Washington University in St Louis, but stayed more than three decades. She worked together with zoologist Viktor Hamburger and after sometime with biochemist Stanley Cohen, pioneering nerve-growth factor (NGF) and epidermal growth factor (EGF). Levi-Montalcini and Cohen won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1986.

Indeed, the latter part of Levi-Montalcini’s life consists of a long list of scientific prizes and honors. In addition to her continuing research, she is an FAO Goodwill Ambassador (1999) and an Italian Senator For life (2001).

“It is imperative that we support FAO’s campaign, urging young people, who more than adults enjoy the ability to spring into action, to play what could be a decisive role in the elimination of this tragic reality. I ask you to join us by participating in FAO’s campaign against world hunger”.