April 22, 1909, is the birthdate of the late Italian neurologist Rita Levi-Montalcini, who helped identify nerve growth factor, a protein responsible for the growth and maintenance of nerve cells. Levi-Montalcini was awarded the 1986 Nobel Prize for Medicine or Physiology for the discovery, together with biochemist Stanley Cohen, with whom she worked for many years at Washington University.
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Rita Levi-Montalcini was born in Turin to a well-off and highly cultivated Jewish family, with roots in that northern Italian city going back to Roman times. Her father, Adamo Levi, was an electrical engineer and businessman, and her mother, Adele Montalcini, a painter. Rita’s fraternal twin sister, Paola, became a well-known painter, while her older brother, Gino, became a highly influential architect. (The children took on the double-barreled family name as adults, to honor their mother.)
Although her father did not think that women needed a higher education, and felt that working would interfere with their ability to carry out their role in the home, he supported Rita’s desire to attend medical school, which she developed after watching a very close family friend die of cancer.
Completing medical school at the University of Turin in 1936, Levi-Montalcini began specializing in psychiatry and neurology, but was forced to leave the university two years later, when the Italian race laws prohibited “non-Aryans” from pursuing academic and professional careers. She responded by setting up a secret laboratory in her bedroom at her parents’ home, where she began studying nerve development in chick embryos. Eggs were relatively easy for her to buy without subjecting herself to suspicion. After a while, her most influential professor from medical school, histologist Giuseppe Levi – no relation, but also a Jew, so that he had also been sidelined by the regime – asked if he could join her in her research. (Three of Giuseppe Levi’s students went on to win Nobel Prizes.)
Later in the war, when Allied air raids caused the Levi family to flee Turin to a country home in Piemonte Florence, Rita reproduced her laboratory there, and her university mentor again joined her. Together, they worked on trying to reproduce some of the studies on nerve-cell development done by American zoologist Viktor Hamburger, at Washington University. Hamburger had been studying how neurons grow in embryonic limbs, and Levi-Montalcini, looking at the same question, decided that Hamburger’s conclusions had been wrong.
After Allied forces invaded Italy, Levi-Montalcini worked as a physician in a camp they set up for war refugees in Florence. With the conclusion of the war, in 1945, she and her family returned to Turin, and she resumed work at the university. In the meantime, word of her findings had reached Viktor Hamburger in St. Louis, and Levi-Montalcini was invited to his lab, so that they could compare notes and figure out whose theory was correct. An invitation to spend a semester at Washington University turned into an appointment that lasted until 1977, although after 1962 she divided her time between the U.S. and Rome, where she oversaw a series of different research laboratories.
Levi-Montalcini’s breakthrough occurred when she transplanted mouse tumors into chick embryos, and found that the latter began to develop nerve fibers; this was the case even when the tumor tissue was not in direct contact with the embryo. She concluded that the mouse tissue released a substance that stimulated nerve growth, what became known as nerve growth factor. Her colleague Stanley Cohen not only developed a method for purifying NGF, but also discovered something called epidermal growth factor, which triggered the growth of a number of other kinds of cells. No less important, the two figured out the complex feedback method by which cell receptors communicate with and regulate the work of growth factors, a discovery that has been essential to the study of cancer and dementia, among other disorders.
Rita Levi-Montalcini never married or had children, but she was active in public life. She set up a foundation to encourage women to pursue careers in science; she served as an ambassador to the World Food Organization; and in 2001 she was named a senator-for-life by Italy. She died on December 30, 2012, at age 103.