On this day in medical history: Honoring Rita Levi-Montalcini, Nobel Prize winner, nerve growth factor pioneer

By Liz Meszaros, MDLinx
Published April 19, 2018

Key Takeaways

Celebrated as the longest-living Nobel Laureate, Rita Levi-Montalcini was born on April 22, 1909, in Turin, Italy. Her father was an electrical engineer and mathematician and her mother an artist. Despite her father’s strong beliefs in women being wives and mothers, he allowed Levi-Montalcini to study medicine at the University of Turin. She graduated with a degree in medicine and surgery in 1936 and continued to work there. Through her research, she developed a silver staining method for nerve cells that made them more visible under a microscope.

It was during her time at the University of Turin that Benito Mussolini, then Prime Minister of Italy (1922 to 1943), passed laws that made it illegal for people of Jewish heritage, like Levi-Montalcini, to work at universities or in most professions, including medicine. Because of this, she had to leave the University. Undaunted, Dr. Levi-Montalcini set up a laboratory in her bedroom, using surgical instruments she fashioned from sharpened sewing needles.

She worked throughout World War II, despite bombings that forced her and her family to leave Turin for the countryside. After the war, she served as a doctor in a refugee camp, and ultimately returned to the University of Turin.

Work by American embryologist Viktor Hamburger, PhD, inspired her to use her silver staining technique to trace nerve growth in chicken embryos. But fate took a twist: Dr. Hamburger saw Dr. Levi-Montalcini’s published papers describing her silver staining work, and invited her to visit him at Washington University in St. Louis, MO.

In 1947, Levi-Montalcini arrived in America and eventually became a professor at Washington University, where she remained for 30 years before returning to live in Rome. She held dual citizenship in the United States and Italy.

In Dr. Hamburger’s laboratory, Dr. Levi-Montalcini discovered that a mouse tumor grafted onto a chicken embryo induced nerve growth. This effect was traced to a substance within the tumor that became known as nerve growth factor, or NGF. With the help of Stanley Cohen, PhD, a biochemist at Washington University, Dr. Levi-Montalcini succeeded in isolating NGF, the first of several cell growth factors to be discovered.

Although it plays a vital role in the growth of nerve cells and fibers in the peripheral nervous system, the value of NGF was not realized until later. Scientists eventually recognized the role of nerve growth factors in understanding conditions such as senile dementia, wound healing, and tumors, as well as their promise in developing potential treatments for conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, infertility, and cancer.

For her discovery of NGF, Dr. Levi-Montalcini was awarded and shared the 1986 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine with Dr. Cohen.

After winning the Nobel Prize, Dr. Levi-Montalcini created an educational foundation and set up the European Brain Research Institute. She continued her research until her death in Rome, Italy, on December 30, 2012, at the age of 103.

Despite hardships such as World War II, Benito Mussolini, and antisemitism, Dr. Levi-Montalcini prevailed in her research and professional dedication to medicine. Her courage and perseverance are a testament to her life and achievements as a medical researcher and neurologist.


"Rita Levi-Montalcini – Facts." Nobelprize.org. Nobel Media AB 2014. Web. 18 Apr 2018. http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/medicine/laureates/1986/levi-montalcini-facts.html

“Rita Levi-Montalcini Biography.” Biography. Accessed April 18, 2018. https://www.biography.com/people/rita-levi-montalcini-9380593

“Rita Levi-Montalcini: Italian-American neurologist.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed April 18. 2018. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Rita-Levi-Montalcini

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