Nobel Women

Rita Levi-Montalcini
Riccardo De Luca/AP

Rita Levi-Montalcini, 1986 Winner of Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

October 14, 2009
by Anita Gutierrez-Folch
Rita Levi-Montalcini, a specialist in neuroembryology, was the recipient of the 1986 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for her discovery and characterization of the role of the nerve growth factor.

Levi-Montalcini was born in Turin, Italy, in 1909, the youngest of four children. She studied medicine at the University of Turin, concentrating on the study of nerve cell growth and the effect of peripheral tissues on their development. Due to her Jewish ancestry, Rita was forced to go into hiding in Florence during the German occupation of Italy between 1943 and 1945.

Two years later, Rita traveled to the United States to work in conjunction with Viktor Hamburger, a noted zoologist, at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo. In 1948, after extensive research on the growth of nerve tissue in chick embryos, the two scientists discovered a protein they called nerve-growth factor (NGF) that contributed to nerve cell growth.

Nerve growth factor is a protein that stimulates nerve cell growth and plays a key role in degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s,. With the help of colleague Stanley Cohen, Levi-Montalcini was able to isolate the protein and identify its role in the growth of nerve cells and tissues within the peripheral nervous system.

This important discovery earned Levi-Montalcini a series of prestigious awards in the field, including the National Medal of Science in 1987. In 2001, she was named a senator-for-life by Italian Prime Minister Carlo Azeglio Ciampi for her lifelong contributions to science.

For a complete autobiography, visit Rita Levi-Montalcini’s page on the Nobel Foundation Web site.

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