Rita Levi-Montalcini: Women in science

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Rita Levi-Montalcini is an inspirational woman in science who shared the 1986 Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine due to the discovery of a protein that stimulates nerve cell growth.

Rita was born in Italy on the 22nd April in 1909. She initially wanted to be a philosopher until she concluded that she wasn’t logically minded enough. It was when her governess died of cancer that she decided to become a doctor. After receiving her father’s consent, she studied for the entrance examination and enrolled in the Turin School of Medicine at age 21. It was clear from the beginning of her journey through medicine that she was interested and curious about aspects of the nervous system.

Levi-Montalcini was granted permission to study the development of the nervous system in chick embryos. During the Second World War, she continued her studies on neurons (nerve cells) in a homemade laboratory due to her being forced to stop after Benito Mussolini declared that all people with Jewish heritage, like Rita, couldn’t work in Universities. This frustrated Rita Levi-Montalcini so much that she created her own surgical instruments out of sharpened sewing needles.

In the years that followed, bombs fell and the war continued, causing Rita to be forced to take her microscopes, slides and needles into the basement for safety. The hardships that Rita faced didn’t stop her; the homemade lab was the basis for her discovery, which led to her Nobel Prize. Rita and her family left Turin in 1942 and retreated to the countryside where they went into hiding for the remainder of the war where Rita continued her research after convincing a farmer to give her eggs for children that she didn’t actually have!

Levi-Montalcini’s life changed course when Biologist Viktor Hamburger saw her published papers and invited her to Washington University in St. Louis Missouri. She arrived in 1947 and only planned to stay for a short period of time, however, she ended up becoming a professor at the University.

In Hamburger’s lab, Rita observed a mouse tumour that had been grafted onto a chicken embryo, which actually produced nerve growth. Having seen this, Rita adapted the experiment so that the tumour would only share the blood supply of the chicken embryo. She observed the same increased growth. Having repeated the results, she began to work with a biochemist in Washington named Stanley Cohen. Together, they isolated nerve growth factor, a protein that promotes growth of nerves in nearby developing cells. This is what led to the pair being awarded their Nobel Prize in 1986 due to the realisation that the discovery offered possible treatments for conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, cancer and infertility.

After receiving the award, Rita continued to work, in areas that concerned her. She believed that without receiving the Prize, she would not be able to do such important work. She was president of the Italian Multiple Sclerosis Association and was a member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences; she was the first woman to be elected to the academy.

It is clear that Levi-Montalcini did not sit back after winning a Nobel Prize. Having already helped establish the Institute of Cell Biology in Rome in 1962, she went on to create an educational foundation in 1992 and set up the European Brain Research Institute in 2002.

Unfortunately, after being a remarkable asset to science, Levi-Montalcini passed away in December 2013, at the astounding age of 103. Even towards the end of her life, Rita didn’t give up her research and continued working every day.

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