The Woman Who Moved Mountains: Rita Levi-Montalcini

Nobel laureate in Medicine or Physiology, Rita Levi-Montalcini in her laboratory in the early 1960s. Credit: Becker Medical Library, Washington University School of Medicine. Photographer unknown. Kindly provided by Becker Medical Library

If I had not been discriminated against or had not suffered persecution, I would never have received the Nobel Prize.

~ Rita Levi-Montalcini

Almost 80 years ago, two scientists at Washington University in St. Louis were studying cell growth in the nerve tissues of chick embryos when they stumbled upon a major discovery the repercussions of which are still felt today. They found that when a particular type of mouse tumour was implanted in chick embryos, it had the surprising effect of stimulating nerve growth. They named the substance Nerve Growth Factor (NGF). The scientists were Rita Levi Montalcini and the embryologist Viktor Hamburger.

NGF was the first of many cell-growth factors scientists would find in animals, and it has given scientists a new way to study neural growth and potentially battle disorders of neural degeneration, such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. NGF is also a potential therapeutic target in cancer. Moreover, it could help treat multiple sclerosis and it could be a factor in various psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia and autism.

The story of NGF belies the remarkable story of Rita Levi-Montalcini who struggled every step to overcome seemingly unsurmountable odds. She began her scientific career in danger, as a Jew in Fascist Italy. She ended it in triumph, as the neuro-embryologist who co-discovered NFG. She also became a prominent figure in Italian politics, and an active researcher and mentor until her death at the age of 103.

This is her story.

Born in Turin, Italy, in 1909, Rita Levi-Montalcini was raised by an authoritarian father who strongly disapproved of women’s education beyond finishing school. But as turned out, his attitude was both a hindrance and a spur to Levi-Montalcini’s scientific ambitions.

She convinced her father to let her study medicine. Woefully undereducated for that discipline, she crammed years’ worth of Greek, Latin and mathematics into eight months, and then entered medical school at the University of Turin, graduating with the highest distinction in medicine and surgery in 1936. She then pursued advanced studies in neurology and psychology, but she was soon kicked out of school, when Mussolini’s newly published 1938 Race Laws forbade any non-Aryan from having a professional or academic career. Levi-Montalcini went to Brussels for a short time to study at a neurological institute, but had to flee when Germany was poised to invade Belgium. Speaking years later, she said:

I should thank Mussolini for having declared me to be of an inferior race. This led me to the joy of working, not any more unfortunately in university institutes, but in a bedroom.”

She was referring to her own bedroom back in Turin. When she was forbidden even to set foot at the university, she took research matters into her own hands by building a laboratory in her bedroom, fashioning scalpels from sewing needles, using an ophthalmologist’s tiny scissors and a watchmaker’s forceps. With these elementary tools and inspired by an article she read by embryologist Viktor Hamburger, she dissected chick embryos and studied their motor neurons (nerve cells responsible for controlling movement) under a microscope. Eventually, with her medical school mentor, Giuseppe Levi, Levi-Montalcini came up with a theory about embryonic nerve cells – that they proliferated, started to grow, then died, a theory that laid the foundation for the modern concept of nerve cell death as a part of normal development. As Jews, they couldn’t publish in Italian journals, but their results found their way into foreign journals in the early 1940s.

Photo negatives from a photomicroscopy series of chick embryo cerebellum and optical cortex development, dating from May 1957. These images document some of Levi-Montalcini’s work studying the generation of chick optic nerves. Credit: Becker Medical Library, Washington University School of Medicine.

When the Allies bombed Turin, Levi-Montalcini moved her makeshift lab to the country. When the Germans invaded and started rounding up Jews, she and her family moved south under false names. They survived, and as the war ended, she briefly did a stint as a doctor, treating patients in a refugee camp. But by then, after the excitement of her bedroom research, Levi-Montalcini knew that neuroembryology would be her path. Her future was secured in 1946, when Viktor Hamburger himself, curious about their conflicting results, invited her to the Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. “I felt at home the day I landed,” she later wrote. She would stay for 30 years. It was there, in 1948, that she and Viktor Hamburger initiated their pathbreaking research which led to the discovery of NFG.

Rita Levi-Montalcini in her laboratory, ca 1959 © Becker Medical Library, Washington University School of Medicine.

Having faced so many obstacles herself, Rita Levi-Montalcini spent much of the latter part of her career ensuring that other scientists have access to funds, equipment, and support. She founded and was the first director of the Institute of Cell Biology in Rome. She also founded the European Brain Research Institute in 2002, and established the Rita Levi-Montalcini Foundation to provide African women “with the tools for a full development of their capabilities.”

Portrait and signature of Rita Levi-Montalcini in the Nobel Foundation’s book of portraits, 1986. Credit: The Nobel Foundation, Photo: Karl Anderson

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