Rita Levi-Montalcini, Italian Nobel Laureate, Died at 103

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Dead, Rita Levi-Montalcini on the 30th of December 2012, she was an Italian Nobel Laureate honoured for her work in neurobiology.

Levi-Montalcini was born on the 22nd of April 1909 in Turin to a wealthy Sephardi Jewish family.

She and her twin sister Paola were the youngest of four children. Her parents were Adele Montalcini, a painter, and Adamo Levi, an electrical engineer and mathematician.

Her father discouraged his daughters from attending college, as he feared it would disrupt their lives as wives and mothers, but eventually he supported Levi-Montalcini’s aspirations to become a doctor.

At the University of Turin the neurohistologist Giuseppe Levi sparked her interest in the developing nervous system.

During World War II she set up a laboratory in her bedroom and studied the growth of nerve fibers in chicken embryos, which laid the groundwork for much of her later research.

She described this experience decades later in the science documentary film Death by Design/The Life and Times of Life and Times (1997).

The film also features her fraternal twin sister Paola, who became a respected artist.

When the Germans invaded Italy in 1943 her family fled south to Florence, where she set up a second laboratory in a corner of their shared living space.

During this time she also volunteered her medical expertise for the Allied health service.

Her family returned to Turin in 1945.

After she duplicated the results of her home laboratory experiments, Hamburger offered her a research associate position, which she held for 30 years.

It was there that, in 1952, she did her most important work: isolating nerve growth factor (NGF) from observations of certain cancerous tissues that cause extremely rapid growth of nerve cells. By transferring pieces of tumours to chick embryos, Montalcini established a mass of cells that was full of nerve fibers.

This discovery, of nerves growing everywhere like a halo around the tumour cells, was surprising.

Montalcini described this “like rivulets of water flowing steadily over a bed of stones.” The nerve growth produced by the tumour was unlike anything she had seen before – the nerves took over areas that would become other tissues and even entered veins in the embryo.

But nerves did not grow into the arteries, which would flow from the embryo back to the tumour.

Inspired by American embryologist Viktor Hamburger’s article about nerve development in chicken embryos, Levi-Montalcini used her silver staining technique to trace nerve growth in such embryos herself.

She worked throughout World War II, even when bombing forced Levi-Montalcini and her family to leave Turin for the countryside.

When the war ended, she served as a doctor in a refugee camp before returning to the University of Turin.

But her life changed course when Hamburger, having seen papers that Levi-Montalcini had published, invited her to visit Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri.

Levi-Montalcini did not rest on her laurels after winning a Nobel Prize.

Having already helped establish the Institute of Cell Biology in Rome, Italy, in 1962, she went on to create an educational foundation in 1992 and set up the European Brain Research Institute in 2002.

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