Rita Levi-Montalcini was an Italian neurologist who, together with her colleague Stanley Cohen, received the 1986 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their discovery of nerve growth factor. She was also an Italian Senator from 2001 till her death in 2012 at the age of 103!
Rita was born in 1909 to a wealthy Italian-Jewish family in Turin. She had a twin sister who became a popular artist and also lived a long life. Her father did not want her to go to college since he believed it would disrupt her life as a wife and mother, but eventually he gave in and let her attend. She decided to go to medical school after watching a friend die of stomach cancer. Levi-Montalcini's years in medical school coincided with the rise of fascism in Italy and the imposition of anti-Semitic laws which limited her academic career. Once WWII broke out she built a laboratory in her bedroom to continue her research. It was in this bedroom laboratory that she began to study the growth of nerve fibers in chicken embryos, which laid the groundwork for her Nobel Prize-winning work on the mechanism of cell growth regulation.
After the Nazi invasion of Italy in 1943, she worked as a doctor in Allied war camps and after the end of the war, she moved to the U.S. At the Washington University of St. Louis she discovered the nerve growth factor, a protein which regulates the growth of cells; This discover was critical to the study of tumor growth and many other medical conditions. It was for this work that she received the 1986 Nobel Prize for Medicine.
If you want to read more about this remarkable lady of science check out her Wikipedia page:
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