Birthplace: Turin, Italy
Location of death: Rome, Italy
Cause of death: unspecified
Race or Ethnicity: White
Occupation: Scientist, Doctor
Executive summary: Nerve and skin cell growth factors
Italian neurologist Rita Levi-Montalcini was inspired as a child by the writings of Nobel laureate Selma Lagerlöf, but she felt distanced from her father, who discouraged her interest in education and doted on her twin sister. She decided to conduct medical research after a family friend was killed by cancer, and attended medical school, though her father warned her that a woman could not have both a career and a family. She graduated summa cum laude, and befriended two fellow students, Renato Dulbecco and Salvador Luria, both of whom were later honored with Nobel Prizes.
By the late 1930s, as Italy's Manifesto della Razza restricted the work of Jews in academic and professional careers, she constructed a laboratory in her own home and conducted research in secrecy. Food was so scarce, she said years later, that after conducting experiments on chicken embryos, she would cook and eat the remaining yolks. After the Germans invaded Italy, she fled to Florence and lived underground with her family. After the war, she accepted a one-year residency at Washington University in St Louis, but stayed more than three decades.
She worked with zoologist Viktor Hamburger and later with biochemist Stanley Cohen, discovering nerve-growth factor (NGF) and epidermal growth factor (EGF). Levi-Montalcini and Cohen were awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1986. She hoheld dual citizenship in Italy and America, and in 2001 she was appointed Senator-for-life by Italian President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi.
In May 2008 she became the longest-lived Nobel Prizewinner, surpassing Tadeus Reichstein, who died at the age of 99 years and 11 days. She continued working, and said in a 2009 interview, "At 100, I have a mind that is superior — thanks to experience — than when I was 20." She died at 103 in 2012.
Father: Adamo Levi (electrical engineer)
Mother: Adele Montalcini (artist)
Brother: Gino Levi-Montalcini (architect, b. 1902, d. 1974)
Sister: Anna Levi-Montalcini (b. 1904)
Sister: Paola Levi-Montalcini (twin, artist, b. 22-Apr-1909, d. 2000)
Medical School: MD, University of Turin
Teacher: Medicine, University of Turin (1945-47)
Teacher: Embryology, Washington University in St. Louis (1947-58)
Professor: Washington University in St. Louis (1958-77)
Administrator: Research Center of Neurobiology, Italian National Council of Research (1961-69)
Administrator: Director of the Institute of Cell Biology, Italian National Council of Research (1969-79)
Nobel Prize for Medicine 1986 (with Stanley Cohen)
National Medal of Science 1987
National Academy of Sciences
Pontifical Academy of Sciences
Naturalized US Citizen
Author of books:
In Praise of Imperfection: My Life and Work (1988, autobiography)
Ninety Years in the Galaxy of the Mind (1999)
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