Homemade Laboratory to Nobel Prize – The Inspiring Story of Dr. Rita Levi-Montalcini

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Posted By : ScienceIndia Administrator

Rita Levi-Montalcini was an Italian neurophysiologist who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology/Medicine in 1986 together with Stanley Cohen for discovering the nerve growth factor. On the occasion of her 100th birthday, the journal Nature quoted “Italy - and quite possibly the world -has never seen a scientist quite like her”.

The story of Levi-Montalcini is, indeed, incredible and inspiring. She was born on April 22, 1909, to a Jewish family in Turin, Italy, with her twin sister Paola. At the age of twenty-three, she enrolled at the University of Turin to study medicine and undertook her first research under Giuseppe Levi who introduced her to the field of the nervous system. Her academic career in Italy was cut short due to Benito Mussolini who banned Jews from academic careers. She migrated to Belgium and spent a short period in a neurological institute as a guest. In 1940s, Levi-Montalcini moved back to Turin and set up a small laboratory in her bedroom and conducted research. Later in the year 1943, she along with her family fled to Florence and lived underground. During this period, she performed experiments in chicken embryos to study the mechanisms of nerve cell differentiation and specialization. Levi-Montalcini returned to Turin in 1945 after the death of Mussolini and the end of World War II, and resumed her academic position at the university.

Two years later, she was invited by Professor Viktor Hamburger, Washington University, St Louis (Missouri, USA) to join his group. This was the turning point of her career. During her tenure, she did her Nobel award-winning work: isolating the nerve growth factor (NGF), a protein that plays a key role in the growth and homeostasis of nerve cells. She shared a 1986 Nobel Prize for that with colleague Stanley Cohen. Her discovery was huge as it opened up a whole field in the understanding of how cells, including cancer cells, talk and listen to each other. She showed, for example, that NGF had major effects on the immune system, yet another unexpected finding which became a major turning point in biology.

In 1969, she settled permanently in Italy to assume the directorship of the Institute of Cell Biology at the Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche (CNR) or National Research Council in Rome. Later in the year 1999, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) nominated Levi-Montalcini as Goodwill Ambassador. She was also appointed as ‘Senator for Life’ in Italy’s senate in 2001, where she worked on the improvement of science. Further, she created an educational foundation for African women and was deeply engaged in social issues such as ethics and women in science. On  April 22, 2009, she became the first Nobel laureate ever to reach the age of 100. She died at the age of 103 and was the oldest living Nobel laureate. Her autobiography ‘In Praise of Imperfection: My Life and Work’ was published in 1988, where she credited her work as the real secret of her longevity.  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 anymore, unfortunately, in university institutes but in a bedroom”.

 “I tell young people: Do not think of yourself, think of others. Think of the future that awaits you, think about what you can do and do not fear anything. Above all, don’t fear difficult moments, the best comes from them”- Rita Levi-Montalcini.

Author: Dr. Sonia Chadha, Scientific Officer (F), Nuclear Agriculture and Biotechnology Division, Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, Mumbai.

Image courtesy: Bernard Becker Medical Library, USA. http://beckerexhibits.wustl.edu/mig/bios/levi-montalcini.html


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