March is Women’s History Month, and each week we will be highlighting an Italian or Italian American woman for #ItalianoftheWeek. This week, we’re discussing Nobel Prize winner Rita Levi-Montalcini.
Rita Levi-Montalcini was born in Turin, Italy on April 22, 1909. She was the youngest of four children, and had a twin sister Paola. In 1936, she graduated from the University of Turin with degrees in medicine and surgery. After graduating, she began to work for the school.
During World War II, Benito Mussolini enacted several laws prohibiting anyone with Jewish heritage – including Rita – to work in most professions (including universities). Rita didn’t let this deter her from her research. Instead, she set up a mini-laboratory in her bedroom so that she could continue her studies on nerve growth. Even when Rita and her family were forced from Turin into the Italian countryside, she continued to research and published papers on the topic.
In 1947, Rita traveled to the United States where she was invited to visit Washington University in St. Louis, MO. Even though she had originally planned to stay temporarily, Rita became a professor at the school until her retirement in 1977. During this time, she became a dual citizen of the United States and Italy. She also began working with fellow scientist Stanley Cohen on isolating a protein that promoted nerve growth in developing cells. For their work, they were awarded the 1986 Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine.
Rita continued to work and research cell biology until her death in 2012 – she was 103 years old. In remembering Rita, Dr. Gerald D. Fishbach – professor emeritus from Columbia University – said, “I don’t use these words easily, but her work revolutionized the study of neural development, from how we think about it to how we intervene.” In 2001, Dr. Levi-Montalcini was honored by her home country, who made her a senator for life.