Rita Levi-Montalcini

Nobel laureate who discovered nerve growth factor

Rita Levi-Montalcini with Washington University shield logo

Rita Levi-Montalcini was born April 22, 1909, in Turin, Italy. She received her medical degree from the University of Turin in 1936. Levi-Montalcini’s research focused on the development of the vertebrate nervous system. In 1951, she discovered nerve growth factor (NGF), a humoral factor that plays an essential role in the growth and differentiation of sensory and sympathetic nerve cells. For the next 30 years, she continued her research on the function of this protein and other specific growth factors. With her colleague, Stanley Cohen, she was awarded the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine in 1986 for the discoveries of NGF and epidermal growth factor.

Levi-Montalcini felt strongly about supporting women in her own lab and work.

Levi-Montalcini completed residency in neurology and psychiatry, and was on staff in Turin before and after World War II. In 1947, at the invitation of Viktor Hamburger, she joined Washington University School of Medicine as a research associate in zoology. She spent the next 30 years in St. Louis, joining the faculty as an associate professor in 1956. She became a full professor in 1958 and retired in 1977. In 1962, she established a research unit in Rome and from then on divided her time between that city and St. Louis. In 1969, she became director of the Institute of Cell Biology of the Italian National Council of Research, in Rome. Upon retirement from this position in 1979, she became a guest professor of the same institute.

An inspired experimentalist

In her autobiography, In Praise of Imperfection: My Life and Work, Rita Levi-Montalcini describes being raised in a cultured, intellectually stimulating environment, even though her father believed that “a professional career would interfere with the duties of a wife and mother.” At the age of 20, she convinced her father to relent. Within eight months, she had made up the gaps in her education and entered medical school.

Although her medical career was interrupted by the war, she installed a small lab in her bedroom and pursued her research on the growth of nerve fibers in chick embryos. An inspired experimentalist, Levi-Montalcini made a number of critical observations during this time that laid the groundwork for her later Nobel Prize-winning experiments. In testimony to both her tenacity and insight, the elucidation of the biology and importance of NGF was a brilliant achievement in developmental neurobiology.

Perhaps because of her earlier experiences, Levi-Montalcini felt strongly about supporting women in her own lab and work. She firmly believed that women could do the work if given the opportunity. Her well-groomed, elegant appearance coupled with her warm, caring personality made her a sought-after mentor and role model.