Rita Levi-Montalcini

(b. 1909)

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(1909–) Italian cell biologist

Levi-Montalcini was educated at the university in her native city of Turin, graduating from medical school just before the outbreak of World War II. Being of Italian-Jewish descent, she found that posts in Italy's academic establishments were closed to her as a result of growing antisemitism. Undaunted, she converted her bedroom into a makeshift laboratory and proceeded with her studies of the development of chick embryos. In this she was joined by her former professor, Giuseppe Levi, a Jew who had been purged from his job by the Fascists. Between 1941 and 1943, Levi-Montalcini lived in a country cottage in the Piedmont region, then in hiding in Florence. After the Allied liberation of Italy in 1944 she worked as a doctor among refugees in Florence and in 1945 she returned to the University of Turin. Two years later she moved to the Washington University, St. Louis, becoming associate professor (1956) and professor (1958–77). She was appointed director of the Institute of Cell Biology of the Italian National Research Council in Rome in 1969, a post she held until her retirement in 1978.

After moving to St. Louis in 1947, Levi-Montalcini continued her work on chick embryos under professor Viktor Hamburger (b. 1900). By the early 1950s she had demonstrated that the number of nerve cells produced in these embryos could be influenced by an agent (later termed nerve growth factor) obtained from a mouse tumor-cell culture. In 1952 the Italian embryologist was joined by an American biochemist, Stanley Cohen, who collaborated with her in determining the chemical nature of this growth factor. Cohen went on to investigate another growth factor, epidermal growth factor, which controls the embryological development of tissues such as eyes and teeth.

The early studies of Levi-Montalcini represent a key advance in the understanding of mechanisms controlling embryological tissue development. Indeed, in the 1980s it was established that the nerve growth factor discovered by Levi-Montalcini influences the growth of nerves in the brain and spinal cord. The value of her work earned her the 1986 Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine, which she shared with Stanley Cohen.

Subjects: Science and Mathematics.

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