Spotlight on: Rita Levi Montalcini

Rita Levi Montalcini


Rita Levi Montalcini was born in Turin in 1909 to Jewish parents. She studied medicine, but her passion soon turned to research. In 1938 Mussolini’s new law, barring all Jews from university positions, drove her out of her lab. So, she built her own lab in her bedroom, and using chicken eggs and sewing needles she started dissecting and studying nerve growth. She took on an assistant, Giuseppe Levi and together they set out a new theory of embryonic nerve development. Soon, the Germans invaded Italy and started rounding up Jews. No longer safe, she and Giuseppe fled to America.

She observed and recorded a factor derived from a tumour that would increase nerve growth in her chick embryos, naming it Nerve Growth Factor. Nerve Growth Factor is still studied today and provides the foundation on which neuroembryology has been built. Aside from making her ground-breaking scientific discoveries, Rita also founded the first Cell Biology department in her hometown of Turin, established the Rita Levi Montalcini Foundation to help African women achieve their full potential, and she became a senator for life in Italy. She was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1986 for her scientific discoveries. Rita passed away in 2012, aged 103.