Another installment in our series honoring NIH-Supported Scientists on Their Birthdays|
Born on April 22, 1909, in Turin, Italy, Rita Levi-Montalcini overcame all sorts of challenges on her way to winning the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1986. She’s the oldest living Nobel laureate and the only one to reach her 100th – and now her 101st! – birthday.
Rita’s first big hurdle was persuading her father to let her go to college. Mr. Levi, an electrical engineer and mathematician, believed that a career interferes with the duties of a wife and mother. Eventually, he came around, thank goodness. Rita enrolled in the local university, and she graduated from medical school in 1936 and went on to pursue basic research in neurology and psychiatry at the University of Turin.
Rita, whose family was Jewish, suffered under Benito Mussolini’s rule during World War II. In 1938, Mussolini issued the Manifesto of Race and laws barring Jewish citizens from academic and professional careers. Not to be thwarted, Rita set up lab equipment in her bedroom. Soon, heavy bombing in the city forced her to move her lab to her family’s country cottage. When the Germans invaded Italy in 1943, she moved again, this time to Florence, where she lived under ground – with another makeshift lab – until the end of the war.
After the war, she returned to the University of Turin Institute of Anatomy. Her work impressed Viktor Hamburger, head of the Zoology Department at Washington University in St. Louis. He invited her to collaborate with him as a research associate. Her plans to stay one semester in 1947 stretched into 30 years.
At Washington University, Rita worked with another faculty member, Stanley Cohen, on the growth of nerve fibers. Much of their work was funded by NIH. She and Cohen shared the 1986 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for isolating nerve growth factor (NGF) and epidermal growth factor (EGF). Her many discoveries in neurology and psychiatry have furthered our understanding of such diverse diseases as cancer, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s.
In addition to the Nobel prize, Rita has received many honors and awards -- and she’s been serving in the Italian Senate as a Senator for Life since 2001! Her achievements -- against all odds -- are still making a difference in the world today.
She told a reporter last year from her office in Rome that the secret of her longevity is, basically, “no food, no husband, and no regrets.” She
She’s also been a mentor her whole life and says she “encourages the young to have faith in themselves, and in the future.” She hopes she conveys to everyone the message that “ the important thing is to have lived with serenity using the rational left-hand side of one’s brain, and not the right side, the instinctive side, which leads to misery and tragedy.”
For further reading
Levi-Montalcini, Rita, and Pietro Calissano. 1979. The Nerve-Growth Factor. Scientific American 240:44–3.
Article about Rita Levi-Montalcini on her 100th birthday
Nerve growth factor signaling, neuroprotection, and neural repair
Nerve Growth Factor Gene Therapy for Alzheimer's Disease - Clinical Trial Update
Nerve growth factor levels in Parkinson disease and experimental parkinsonian rats
Nobel laureates funded by the NIH
Press relase for the 1986 Nobel prize