When we think of role models, it’s easy to categorize them narrowly on the basis of their skill set. We might say that he’s a great mathematician, or that she is an excellent chemist. Some role models are admirable on a deeper, human level. These are the kinds of heroes who obliterate all the obstacles dropped in front of them to tirelessly pursue their interests and devote their lives to doing the kind of stuff that makes the world better for everyone.
Italian Nobel Laureate Rita Levi-Montalcini is this kind of role model. Her scientific curiosity and unconventional thinking led her to discover nerve growth factor (NGF), a naturally occurring protein which we now know is responsible for nerve growth and regulation. Rita’s discovery provided great insight into the way the nervous system develops. The discoveries that she made underlie much of modern research into neurologically degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and cancer, and NGF is used experimentally the treatment of both.
Rita was born in Turin, Italy in 1909 into an upper middle-class family. Her mother, Adele Montalcini was an accomplished painter. Her father, Ademo Levi, was an electrical engineer and entrepreneur. In her autobiography, Rita described her home life as loving and accepting, although not particularly permissive. Her father held the prevailing Victorian belief that women were designed purely for domesticity. Ademo felt that professional careers would hinder his daughters’ capacities as wives and mothers.
At age twenty, Rita decided she was not cut out for domestic life. This she was sure of; she never did marry or have children. Beyond this, Rita didn’t know what the future held. She’d attended a girls’ high school where math, science, and the classics were simply not taught. Rita wanted to study the classics and philosophy, but she also wanted to write and to fight leprosy in Africa. When a close family friend died of stomach cancer, her course became clear: Rita would to devote her life to medicine.
Rita’s mother helped convince her father that medical school wasn’t such a terrible thing. He eventually gave in and even helped her study for the admission exams. In 1930, Rita entered the University of Turin and in 1936 graduated summa cum laude with a degree in medicine and surgery. She stayed on at UT after graduation, working as a neurobiology assistant to Giuseppe Levi (no relation), a professor and cell biologist she greatly admired who had ignited in Rita an interest in the developing nervous system.
Experiments in Hiding
In the early 1930s, she read a study by experimental embryologist Viktor Hamburger about nerve death and cell differentiation in amputated chicken embryos. Rita soon ran her own version of the experiment. Although she ultimately obtained the same results as Hamburger, she disagreed with his conclusion that nerve generation and survival was completely target-dependent.
Rita might have spent her entire career at the University of Turin if not for the Italian race laws enacted across Italy in 1938. She and all other non-Aryan Italians including Giuseppe Levi were stripped of their civil rights and forcefully removed from academia. Rita fled to Belgium and continued her work in a laboratory there, but the refuge was short-lived. When WWII broke out the following year, Rita moved with her family to their summer cottage outside of Turin. She hunkered down in a makeshift bedroom laboratory to study nerve growth in the amputated limbs of embryonic chicks. Armed with little more than a microscope and an incubator for experimentation, Rita found her focus in the neurological questions she vowed to answer.
When Germany invaded northern Italy in 1943, Rita and her family fled once again and lived under assumed identities in Florence. Undaunted, Rita recreated her bedroom lab and continued working. Most everything was scarce during wartime, including chicken eggs. Rita would bicycle around the countryside looking for farms. If a farmer was reluctant to sell her fertilized eggs, she convinced them by saying they were more nutritious for her children. Bowing to scarcity, the family would often make post-experimental omelets with the eggs.
Finding the ‘It’ Factor
After the war, Rita received an invitation from Viktor Hamburger to study nerve growth with him at Washington University in St. Louis. He had read the paper she’d published in response to his own research and found her ideas intriguing.
A biochemist named Stanley Cohen joined their research team in the early 1950s. They experimented with the effect of mouse tumor tissue on nerve development in embryonic chicks and soon discovered that tumor cells placed in the same growth material as some tissue from a chicken embryo caused the embryo to blossom with new nerve growth. A short time later, they identified the secret sauce as a protein secreted by the tumor that promoted nerve growth by activating receptors in the chick tissue.
Rita’s work was appreciated, but her research was somewhat undervalued until the 1980s. In 1986, she and Stanley Cohen were co-awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Awards began pouring in from all over the world after that, including several honorary degrees and a National Medal of Science.
A Stoic Scientist
After returning to Rome in the 1980s, Rita made it a point to encourage young women in neuroscience, devoting hours to talking with them about their work. She also created a foundation alongside her fraternal twin sister Paola that helps women in Africa obtain secondary education and professional training.
Rita conducted research until her death in 2012 at age 103. At some point, she started putting NGF in her eyes every day. Throughout her long and storied life, Rita chose her path and followed it with a tireless tenacity. She professed in her autobiography that she had a habit of underestimating obstacles. She credited her success and longevity to hard work and determination, explaining that she had no mental complexes to cloud her faculties.