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Rita Levi-Montalcini

Rita Levi-Montalcini
Born April 22, 1909 (1909-04-22) (age 100)
Turin, Italy
Nationality Italian
Ethnicity Jewish
Fields Neurology
Institutions Washington University in St. Louis
Alma mater Turin Medical School
- University of Turin
Known for Nerve growth factor (NGF)
Notable awards Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (1986)
National Medal of Science (1987)

Rita Levi-Montalcini (born April 22, 1909[1]), Cavaliere di Gran Croce OMRI[2] is an Italian neurologist who, together with colleague Stanley Cohen, received the 1986 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their discovery of Nerve growth factor (NGF). Since 2001, she has also served in the Italian Senate as a Senator for Life.

Today she is the oldest living Nobel laureate and the first ever to reach the 100th birthday[3]. On April 22, 2009 she was feted with a 100th birthday party at Rome's city hall.[4]




Early life

Born in Turin[1] to a Sephardic Jewish family, together with her twin sister Paola she was the youngest of four children. Her parents were Adamo Levi, an electrical engineer and gifted mathematician, and Adele Montalcini, a talented painter described by Levi-Montalcini as "an exquisite human being".

Levi-Montalcini decided to go to medical school after seeing a close family friend die of cancer. She overcame the objections of her father — who believed that "a professional career would interfere with the duties of a wife and mother" — and enrolled in the Turin medical school in 1930, studying with Giuseppe Levi. After graduating in 1936, she went to work as Levi's assistant, but her academic career was cut short by Benito Mussolini's 1938 Manifesto of Race and the subsequent introduction of laws barring Jews from academic and professional careers.

Professional life

During World War II, she conducted experiments from a home laboratory, studying the growth of nerve fibers in chicken embryos which laid the groundwork for much of her later research. Her first genetics laboratory was in her bedroom at her home. In 1943, her family fled south to Florence, and she set up a laboratory there also. Her family returned to Turin in 1945.

In September 1946, Levi-Montalcini accepted an invitation to Washington University in St. Louis, under the supervision of Professor Viktor Hamburger. Although the initial invitation was for one semester, she stayed for thirty years. It was there that she did her most important work: isolating the nerve growth factor (NGF) from observations of certain cancerous tissues that cause extremely rapid growth of nerve cells in 1952. She was made a Full Professor in 1958, and in 1962, established a research unit in Rome, dividing the rest of her time between there and St. Louis.

From 1961 to 1969 she directed the Research Center of Neurobiology of the CNR (Rome), and from 1969 to 1978 the Laboratory of Cellular Biology.

Senator for Life

On August 1, 2001 she was appointed as Senator for Life[1] by the President of the Italian Republic, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi.

On April 28–29, 2006 Levi-Montalcini, aged 97, attended the opening assembly of the newly-elected Senate, at which the President of the Senate was elected; she declared her preference for the centre-left candidate Franco Marini. Levi-Montalcini, who is the senior member of the Upper House, chose not to be the temporary president on this occasion. She actively takes part in the Upper House discussions, unless busy in academic activities around the world. Due to her support of the government of Romano Prodi, she was often criticized by some right-wing senators, who accused her of "saving" the government when the government's exiguous majority in the Senate was at risk. She has been frequently insulted in public, and on blogs, since 2006, by both center-right senators such as Francesco Storace, and far-right bloggers for her age and Jewish origins.[5][6] Levi-Montalcini is currently the oldest living and the longest-lived Nobel laureate who, though hard of hearing and nearly blind, recently vowed to remain a political force in her country.[7]


She had an older brother Gino, who died after a heart attack in 1974. He was one of the most well known Italian architects and a professor at the University of Turin.

She also had two sisters: Anna, five years older than Rita, and Paola, her twin sister. Paola Levi-Montalcini was a popular artist, who died in 2000.

Awards and honors

In 1968, she became the tenth woman elected to the United States National Academy of Sciences.

In 1983, she was awarded the Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize from Columbia University together with Stanley Cohen (co-winner of 1986 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine) and Viktor Hamburger.

In 1986 Levi-Montalcini and collaborator Stanley Cohen received the Nobel Prize in Medicine, as well as the Albert Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research. This made her the fourth Nobel Prize winner to come from Italy's small (less than 50,000 people) but very old Jewish community, after Emilio Segrè, Salvador Luria (a university colleague and friend) and Franco Modigliani.

In 1987, she received the National Medal of Science, the highest honor in the scientific world of America.

In 1999, she was nominated Goodwill Ambassador of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) by FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf.[8]

In 2001 she was nominated Senator-for-life by the Italian President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi.

In 2006 she received the degree Honoris Causa in Biomedical Engineering from the Polytechnic University of Turin, in her native city.

In 2008 she received the PhD Honoris Causa from the Complutense University of Madrid, Spain.

Member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences


  • Rita Levi Montalcini, Elogio dell'imperfezione, Gli elefanti Saggi, Garzanti, 1999 (nuova edizione accresciuta).
  • Rita Levi-Montalcini, Origine ed Evoluzione del nucleo accessorio del Nervo abducente nell'embrione di pollo, Tip. Cuggiani, 1942
  • Rita Levi-Montalcini, Elogio dell'imperfezione, Garzanti, 1987
  • Rita Levi-Montalcini, NGF : apertura di una nuova frontiera nella neurobiologia, Roma Napoli, 1989
  • Rita Levi-Montalcini, Sclerosi multipla in Italia : aspetti e problemi, AISM, 1989
  • Rita Levi-Montalcini, Il tuo futuro, Garzanti, 1993
  • Rita Levi-Montalcini, Per i settanta anni della Enciclopedia italiana, 1925-1995, Istituto della Enciclopedia italiana, 1995
  • Rita Levi-Montalcini, Senz’olio contro vento, Baldini & Castoldi, 1996
  • Rita Levi-Montalcini, L’asso nella manica a brandelli, Baldini & Castoldi, 1998
  • Rita Levi-Montalcini, La galassia mente, Baldini & Castoldi, 1999
  • Rita Levi-Montalcini, Cantico di una vita, Raffaello Cortina Editore, 2000
  • Rita Levi-Montalcini, Un universo inquieto, 2001
  • Rita Levi-Montalcini, Tempo di mutamenti, 2002
  • Rita Levi-Montalcini, Abbi il coraggio di conoscere, 2004
  • Rita Levi-Montalcini, Tempo di azione, 2004
  • Rita Levi-Montalcini, Eva era africana, 2005
  • Rita Levi-Montalcini, I nuovi Magellani nell’er@ digitale, 2006
  • Rita Levi-Montalcini, Tempo di revisione, 2006
  • Rita Levi-Montalcini, Rita Levi-Montalcini racconta la scuola ai ragazzi, 2007
  • Rita Levi-Montalcini, L'altra parte del mondo, 2009


  • Levi-Montalcini, Rita, In Praise of Imperfection: My Life and Work. Basic Books, New York, 1988.
  • Yount, Lisa (1996). Twentieth Century Women Scientists. New York: Facts on File. ISBN 0-8160-3173-8.
  • Muhm, Myriam : Vage Hoffnung für Parkinson-Kranke - Überlegungen der Medizin-Nobelpreisträgerin Rita Levi-Montalcini , Süddeutsche Zeitung #293, p. 22. December 1986 [1]



  • Aloe, Luigi (2004), "Rita Levi-Montalcini: the discovery of nerve growth factor and modern neurobiology.", Trends Cell Biol. 14 (7): 395–9, 2004 Jul, doi:10.1016/j.tcb.2004.05.011, PMID 15246433  
  • Shampo, Marc A.; Kyle, Robert A. (2003), "Stamp vignette on medical science. Rita Levi-Montalcini's Nobel Prize for work in neurology.", Mayo Clinic Proc. 78 (12): 1448, 2003 Dec, doi:10.4065/78.12.1448, PMID 14661672  
  • Aloe, L. (2003), "Rita Levi-Montalcini and the discovery of nerve growth factor: past and present studies.", Archives italiennes de biologie 141 (2-3): 65–83, March 2003, PMID 12825318  
  • Cowan, W.M. (2001), "Viktor Hamburger and Rita Levi-Montalcini: the path to the discovery of nerve growth factor.", Annual Neuroscience Review 24: 551–600, doi:10.1146/annurev.neuro.24.1.551, PMID 11283321  
  • Provine, R.R. (2001), "In the trenches with Viktor Hamburger and Rita Levi-Montalcini (1965-1974): one student's perspective.", Int. J. Dev. Neurosci. 19 (2): 143–49, April 2001, doi:10.1016/S0736-5748(00)00081-2, PMID 11255028  
  • Levi-Montalcini, R (2000), "From a home-made laboratory to the Nobel Prize: an interview with Rita Levi-Montalcini.", Int. J. Dev. Biol. 44 (6): 563–66, PMID 11061418  
  • Raju, T.N. (2000), "The Nobel chronicles - 1986: Stanley Cohen (b. 1922); Rita Levi-Montalcini (b. 1909).", Lancet 355 (9202): 506, 5 February 2000, PMID 10841166  
  • Aloe, L. (1999), "Rita Levi-Montalcini: a brief biographic view of past and present studies on nerve growth factor.", Microsc. Res. Tech. 45 (4-5): 207–09, doi:10.1002/(SICI)1097-0029(19990515/01)45:4/5<207::AID-JEMT3>3.0.CO;2-E, PMID 10383112  
  • Bendiner, E. (1992), "Rita Levi-Montalcini and the unveiling of growth factors.", Hosp. Pract. (Off. Ed.) 27 (4A): 135–45, 1992 Apr 30, PMID 1560084  
  • Pécsi, T. (1987), "Nobel Prize for medicine, 1986 (Rita Levi-Montalcini)", Orvosi hetilap 128 (20): 1047–48, 17 May 1987, PMID 3295669  
  • Weltman, J.K. (1987), "The 1986 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine awarded for discovery of growth factors: Rita Levi-Montalcini, M.D., and Stanley Cohen, Ph.D.", N Engl Reg Allergy Proc 8 (1): 47–48, doi:10.2500/108854187779045385, PMID 3302667  

See also

External links


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