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Obituary of Rita Levi-Montalcini: Nobel Prize-wininng neurophysiologist worked at Washington U.

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 1, 2013 - By the time she arrived in St. Louis in 1947, Dr. Rita Levi-Montalcini had overcome two major obstacles to her scientific career: A loving, but “Victorian” father and a fascist dictator.

Dr. Levi-Montalcini, whose nerve-growth research would eventually make her the fourth woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine and was the oldest living Laureate, died Sunday (Dec. 30, 2012) at her home in Rome. Her death was announced by Mayor Gianni Alemanno of Rome, who called it a great loss “for all humanity.” She was 103.

Her father believed a woman’s place was in the home.

Theirs was “a typical Victorian style of life, all decisions being taken by the head of the family, the husband and father,” Ms. Levi-Montalcini wrote of her home life.

“He loved us dearly and had a great respect for women, but he believed that a professional career would interfere with the duties of a wife and mother,” she said.

She was having none of it.

“At 20, I realized that I could not possibly adjust to a feminine role as conceived by my father,” she wrote.

Her father relented and she began the journey that would lead her to a Nobel Prize.

En route, she was briefly waylaid by Mussolini.

She graduated from medical school in 1936. Two years later, her budding research career was derailed when Mussolini barred non-Aryan Italians from holding professional jobs. Dr. Levi-Montalcini was a Jew.

Undaunted, she set up a small, makeshift laboratory in her bedroom and continued her research in secret until she made her way to the U.S. and the laboratories at Washington University following World War II.

“She was a great lady,” said Washington University Chancellor Emeritus William H. Danforth. “She was just a very intelligent, thoughtful person who made a great discovery.”

Danforth said her basic research led to a deeper understanding of the nervous system and how different parts of the body send out signals.

“Those insights help (scientists) with next steps; that’s what basic research means – understanding how things work,” Danforth said. “It gives you a better understanding of how to fix something that doesn’t work.”

Nobel Laureate

Dr. Levi-Montalcini was honored in 1986 with the Nobel Prize in Medicine, along with her colleague, Stanley Cohen, for her discovery in the 1950s of nerve growth factor (NGF), a protein that causes developing cells to grow by stimulating surrounding nerve tissue.

Their research proved to be critically important to the understanding of cell and organ growth in cancers and how the growth process can go rogue in diseases such as multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, as well as psychiatric disorders such as depression or anorexia. The work has led to improved therapeutic agents.

“She had this feeling for what was happening biologically,” Cohen, a professor emeritus at Vanderbilt University, told the New York Times recently. “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.”

In the years since the discovery, Dr. Levi-Montalcini and others have described a large family of nerve growth factors that control the growth of specific cells. One inducer that plays a role in breast cancer, epidermal growth factor, was discovered by Cohen. Studying its behavior helped scientists develop drugs to fight the cancer.

An extended stay

Dr. Levi-Montalcini’s lifelong research on NGF had begun at the University of Turin Institute of Anatomy. After her expulsion, she continued her research in her bedroom lab. The inspiration for her research was a 1934 article by Viktor Hamburger on the effects of limb excision in chick embryos.

Hen’s eggs were scarce during the war, so the young scientist biked from farm to farm to buy her supplies. She fashioned tiny scalpels and spatulas out of sewing needles for dissections, repeating Hamburger's experiments in her tiny lab. Despite the ravages of war and the need to stay hidden, she managed to publish her findings in a Belgian scientific journal.

Perhaps recognizing his style, Hamburger, head of the Zoology Department at Washington University took note of her articles. He invited Dr. Levi-Montalcini to become his research assistant and she agreed. She arrived at in St. Louis in 1947.

“Although I had planned to remain in St. Louis for only 10 to 12 months, the excellent results of our research made it imperative for me to postpone my return to Italy,” she wrote in her Nobel Prize autobiography.

Her permanent return was postponed for three decades.

In 1951, she was named an associate professor and then a full professor in 1958, a position she held until her retirement in 1977.

She established a laboratory at the Higher Institute of Health in Rome, which participated in a joint research program with Washington University from 1961 to 1969. In 1962, she helped establish the Institute of Cell Biology of the Italian National Council of Research in Rome, and became its first director. She began dividing her time between St. Louis and Rome, staying with her identical twin sister, Paola, in Italy. When she retired from the Institute in 1979, she became guest professor.

This is immortality

Rita Levi-Montalcini, with her twin sister, Paola, was born April 22, 1909, in Turin, Italy, the youngest of the four children of Adamo Levi, an electrical engineer and mathematician, and Adele Montalcini, a painter.

Her brother, Gino, was a prominent Italian architect and professor at the University of Turin. Her sister, Anna, followed the domestic path that had been chosen for her and Paola, who became a popular artist. The twins were featured in the 1995 science documentary Death by Design/The Life and Times of Life and Times.


She had first considered becoming a writer, but had a change of heart and graduated summa cum laude from the University of Turin medical school in 1936, the same year Mussolini issued the "Manifesto per la Difesa della Razza," signed by 10 Italian 'scientists'. She completed a degree for specialization in neurology and psychiatry in 1940, but the manifesto had soon been followed by laws that forbade Italian Jews from practicing medicine or working in universities.

After Allied forces liberated Florence in 1944, Dr, Levi-Montalcini worked in an Italian refugee camp where she recalled, “Epidemics of infectious diseases and of abdominal typhus spread death among the refugees, where I was in charge as nurse and medical doctor, sharing with them their suffering and the daily danger of death.” The family returned to Turin when the war ended in 1945. Two years later, Dr. Levi-Montalcini, who never married or had children, came to America.

In addition to the Nobel Prize, Dr. Levi-Montalcini received numerous awards, including the Franklin Medal, Albert Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research and the National Medal of Science for Biological Sciences. She was named an Italian senator for life in 2001.

Living up to her reputation as a champion of civil rights and social causes, Dr. Levi-Montalcini used her life’s savings to establish a namesake organization in Africa to educate women to become – what else - scientists.

In her ‘90s, she founded the European Brain Research Institute in Rome. On her 102nd birthday, the Institute posted an interview with Ms. Levi-Montalcini in which she said, “I do not care about dying. The most important thing is the message you leave. This is immortality.”

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