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Rita Levi-Montalcini

January 4, 2013

Rita Levi-Montalcini, who was the oldest living Nobel laureate, and the first to reach a hundredth birthday, died on Sunday, December 30, 2012, at age 103.[1-7] Hans Bethe, who was awarded the 1967 Nobel Prize in Physics, nearly made the hundred year milestone. He died in 2005 at age 98. Levi-Montalcini was one of only four woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, and one of only 44 women to receive a Nobel Prize in any field.[8]

Rita Levi-Montalcini, August 4, 2007

Rita Levi-Montalcini (April 22, 1909 - December 30, 2012).

This photograph was taken on August 4, 2007, in San Gemini, Italy.

(Photo by Jolly Roger, background modified for artistic effect, via Wikimedia Commons.)

Rita Levi-Montalcini was born on April 22, 1909, in Turin, Italy, subsequent to the birth of her twin, Paola, and two other siblings. Hers was a cultured Jewish family. Her mother, Adele Montalcini was a painter, and her father, Adamo Levi, was an electrical engineer and mathematician; thus her hyphenated name. Her brother, Gino, was to become an architect and a professor at the University of Turin.[2,4,6] Her paternal and maternal families had apparently lived in Italy since the time of the Roman Empire.[3]

The custom of the time was that women belonged in the house, as wives and mothers, and they were not college educated. Rita's father was traditional, and he didn't want any of his three daughters in college.[2-3] Paola, her twin decided to pursue painting, like her mother; and, for a time, Rita considered becoming a writer, having been inspired by the works of Selma Lagerlöf. Lagerlöf, in 1909, was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.[6]

A turning point came when Rita was twenty, and her governess was stricken with cancer and died. She told her father that she would like to study to become a medical doctor.[4,6] As she wrote in her autobiography,
"He listened, looking at me with that serious and penetrating gaze of his that caused me such trepidation."[3]
Her father agreed; and he agreed, also, to support her financially.[3] To gain admittance to the University of Turin, Rita first needed to gain proficiency in mathematics, Latin and Greek; and to obtain a high school diploma. She did all this in just eight months, and entered the medical school of the University of Turin, studying under the histologist, Giuseppe Levi, who was not a relative.[2] Giuseppe Levi also taught the future Nobel laureates, Salvador Luria and Renato Dulbecco.[4-6]

After graduation, summa cum laude, in 1936, Levi-Montalcini worked as a research assistant in neurobiology; but the Italian government of the time restricted the employment of Jews in 1938, so she became unemployed.[3,5] She went to Belgium to work at a neurological institute in Brussels, but as the Germans prepared to invade Belgium in 1940, she returned to Turin.[2] Her family stayed in Italy during the war, first retreating from Turin to the Piedmont countryside, and then to Florence.[2-6]

At Turin, Levi-Montalcini established a home laboratory to study chick embryos for research on the development of the vertebrate nervous system.[1-3] Levi-Montalcini, as quoted in Business Week, explained,
"I then decided to build a small research unit at home and installed it in my bedroom... The heavy bombing of Turin made it imperative to abandon Turin and move to a country cottage where I rebuilt my mini-laboratory and resumed my experiments."[6]
Giuseppe Levi, who also had escaped from Belgium, worked with her.[2,4-5] Not surprisingly, chicken eggs became scarce during World War II, and she needed to visit farmers by bicycle for supplies.[5] The chick embryo work paved the way for her later discovery of cellular and organ growth mechanisms.[5] After the liberation of Florence in August 1944, Levi-Montalcini worked as a physician in refugee camps.[1-2,4-5]

After World War II, Levi-Montalcini returned to research at the University of Turin. In 1947, she was invited to Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri, by Viktor Hamburger for a one year research position.[2-3] Hamburger had noticed a paper on her chick embryo work.[4] Her research was so successful that she remained at Washington University, becoming an Associate Professor in 1956 and a full Professor of Neurobiology in 1958.

Levi-Montalcini kept her professorship at Washington University until retirement in 1977, and she became a dual citizen of Italy and the US.[2-4] She established the Institute of Cell Biology in Rome in 1962, and she became its first director. After 1977, she divided her time between Washington University and Rome.[3]

It was at Washington University that Levi-Montalcini did her Nobel Prize work, the discovery of the nerve growth factor, the factor that regulates the growth of cells. This discovery came about with the 1952 observation that tumors from mice, when transplanted into chicken embryos, caused a rapid proliferation of nerve cells, since the tumors carried the growth factor.[2,4-5] Levi-Montalcini and her colleague, Stanley Cohen, found that the addition of just a billionth of a gram of purified growth factor per milliliter of culture medium caused a rapid and potent growth-promotion.[2,4]

One example of how serendipity plays a part in science is when Cohen did an experiment in which he added snake venom to a growth factor mixture of proteins and nucleic acids in an attempt to destroy the DNA and show that it wasn't a nerve growth factor. The snake venom enhanced nerve growth, since it contained high levels of the nerve growth factor. That finding led to the discovery of other natural sources of the factor, which allowed its purification.[4] The nerve growth factor was eventually found to be a protein composed of 118 amino acids.[4]

This discovery launched a new field of biology, and it's allowed development of treatments for a wide range of diseases, such as cancer and Alzheimer's disease.[3] Cohen's continued experiments led to the discovery of epidermal growth factor, which aids in the proliferation of epithelial cells.[5] Cohen and Levi-Montalcini were jointly awarded the 1986 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine "for their discoveries of growth factors."

Levi-Montalcini was a respected figure in Italy.[1] She was president of the Institute of the Italian Encyclopaedia, an ambassador for the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, and a member of the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, the Pontifical Academy, the Accademia delle Scienze, the US National Academy of Sciences, and the Royal Society.[1-2] She also received the US National Medal of Science.[3]

Since she was raised in a male-dominated society, as exemplified by her father, she decided she would never marry, since that would likely lead to problems for herself and any daughters she may have had.[1,4] Nevertheless, Levi-Montalcini and her twin sister established a foundation in their father's memory.[1-2] Another foundation she established provided assistance for African women to attend college. This foundation had helped more than 7,000 by her 100th birthday.[4]

Levi-Montalcini was named a senator for life of the Italian parliament in 2001. This was an honor reserved for Italy's most distinguished public figures.[1,3-4,6]. She was active in both science and politics well into her old age, saying in a 2009 interview that "at 100, I have a mind that is superior - thanks to experience - than when I was 20."[1,3-4] Her niece said that she had died peacefully "as if sleeping" after lunch.[1]

Her Nobel Prize co-laureate, Stanley Cohen, is quoted in The New York Times as saying,
"She had this feeling for what was happening biologically... She was an intuitive observer, and she saw that something was making these nerve connections grow and was determined to find out what it was."[3]


  1. Italian Nobel laureate Rita Levi-Montalcini dies, BBC News, December 30, 2012.
  2. Rita Levi-Montalcini, Telegraph (UK), December 31, 2012.
  3. Benedict Carey, "Dr. Rita Levi-Montalcini, Nobel Winner, Dies at 103," The New York Times, December 30, 2012.
  4. Thomas H. Maugh II, "Rita Levi-Montalcini dies at 103; Nobel-winning scientist," Los Angeles Times, December 31, 2012.
  5. Steve Nolan, "Nobel Prize-winning biologist who was forced to keep work secret from Italy's Fascist regime dies aged 103," Daily Mail (UK), December 31, 2012. This article includes many photographs of Levi-Montalcini.
  6. Flavia Krause-Jackson and Elisa Martinuzzi, "Levi-Montalcini, Italian Nobel Laureate, Dies at 103," Business Week, December 30, 2012.
  7. Alison Abbott, "Nobel Laureate Rita Levi-Montalcini dies at 103," Nature News Blog, December 31, 2012.
  8. Nobel Prize Awarded-Women, Nobel Prize Web Site.
  9. Rita Levi-Montalcini - Autobiography, Nobel Prize Web Site.

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