Hello, Germ readers, and welcome back to Badass Ladies in History!
I am so excited to be writing about someone who changed the game with medical research in the mid-1900s. Rita Levi-Montalcini was born on April 22, 1909, to Adele Montalcini and Adamo Levi, who were from a wealthy Jewish family in Turin, Italy. Her mother was a painter while her father was an electrical engineer and mathematician. Growing up, Rita aspired to be a writer while her father was adamant that she, along with her twin sister, become a house wife and mother. Rita, to her father’s dismay, had a change of heart when her governess died of stomach cancer because it redirected Rita toward her true calling: medicine.
When Rita was around 21 years of age, she told her father that she had no interest in marriage and instead wanted to study for the medical school entrance exams. After a battle against his own patriarchal stubbornness, her father consented to his daughter’s choice of professional pursuits, which left the door open for Rita to enroll into the Turin School of Medicine. While there, she met anatomist and histologist Giuseppe Levi, who would become her mentor throughout her years at school and would eventually spark Rita’s interest in the nervous system.
When she graduated in 1936, Rita stayed on as Giuseppe’s assistant, and throughout her time at the Turin School of Medicine, she worked, experimented, and did thorough research on the development of the nervous system by conducting her research on chick embryos.
Rita’s research and lab work took a sudden halt in 1938, though, when Benito Mussolini, the fascist dictator of Italy, passed a series of anti-Semitic laws known as the Manifesto of Race. Anti-Semitism within the Italian government had steadily been growing since 1925, but the Manifesto of Race solidified the Italian government’s stance on the general existence of Italian Jews, specifically targeting Jews with a professional and academic career background. The Manifesto of Race essentially stripped Italian Jews of Italian citizenship as well as any position in government, academic, or professional careers they had previously held before the law was passed.
In 1939, Rita left the University of Turin, fearing that the government would soon find out that she was a Jew still working at an academic institution. Although she left behind her lab and research, this didn’t stop Rita from building her own laboratory in her bedroom at home. If it weren’t for her persistence and determination, Rita would not have been able to lay the groundwork for the scientific investigation and discovery that she is best known for today.
Rita and her family had to flee their home into the surrounding mountains once the animosity toward Jewish families came to a violent head during World War II. During the war, Rita kept on with her research and even wrote academic papers concerning her findings and lab experiments. Rita and her family came back home to Turin after the Second World War ended, which ushered in a new chapter for Rita in the medical field. An embryologist in St. Louis, Missouri, Dr. Viktor Hamburger, was fascinated by Rita’s published medical papers concerning her investigative work and research on the developing nervous system of chick embryos. Dr. Hamburger had done similar studies concerning how embryo cells built “a latticework of intricate connections to other cells,” and he believed that Rita’s research held the key to something bigger concerning the nervous system.
In the early 1950s, she and biochemist Stanley Cohen were invited to Washington University in St. Louis where Dr. Hamburger lectured and had his own lab. In 1956, Rita and Stanley were able to successfully isolate a protein that, when released by cells, attracted nerve growth from nearby developing cells. Rita and Stanley called the protein Nerve Growth Factor (NGF), and to this day the medical and scientific community believes that the work done at their lab in Washington University immensely altered the way in which cell growth and development is studied.
With their success in isolating NGF, the scientific community was given a new and more accurate way of studying neural growth disorders, such as cancer, and neural degeneration, such as Alzheimer’s. You could say that Rita and Stanley had found and identified a missing piece in a huge and complex neurological puzzle that would essentially lay the groundwork for further research and potential therapies for neurological disorders. It wasn’t until 1986 that Rita and Stanley were recognized for their work in the lab. They would go on to share the 1986 Nobel Prize in Psychology & Medicine for the isolation of NGF.
Rita Levi-Montalcini was a maverick whose first love was her work and research. Up until her death in 2012, she conducted research every single day. After the successes of isolating NGF, Rita went on to help establish The Institute of Cell Biology in Rome and set up the European Brain Research Institute in 2002. Among several honors, Rita was awarded the National Medal of Science in 1987, she was the first woman to be installed in the Pontifical Scientific Academy, and, in 2001, Italy appointed her a “senator for life.”
Rita died at the age of 103 on December 22, 2012, in Rome, Italy. Her life and accomplishments are filled with hardships and struggle; and yet, she knew what she wanted to do with her life from a very young age, and she made it happen despite her family and even her government telling her that she couldn’t be what she believed she could be.
So, three cheers to Rita Levi-Montalcini! She truly was a beautiful and fierce badass lady who deserves so much more recognition, not only in the scientific community but in our historical community as well!