Rita Levi-Montalcini

Rita Levi-Montalcini
Rita Levi-Montalcini

Rita Levi-Montalcini
Born 22 April 1909 (1909-04-22) (age 102)
Turin, Italy
Nationality Italian
Fields Neurology
Institutions Washington University in St. Louis
Alma mater Turin Medical School, University of Turin
Known for Nerve growth factor
Notable awards Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (1986)
National Medal of Science (1987)

Rita Levi-Montalcini (born 22 April 1909[1]), Knight Grand Cross[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).[3] 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 a 100th birthday.[4] On 22 April 2009 she was feted with a 100th birthday party at Rome's city hall.[dead link][5]



Early life

Born in Turin[1] to a 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 painter.

Levi-Montalcini decided to attend medical school after seeing a close family friend die of cancer,[citation needed] overcoming the objections of her father who believed that "a professional career would interfere with the duties of a wife and mother". She enrolled in the Turin medical school in 1930. After graduating in 1936, she went to work as Giuseppe 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.[citation needed]

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. (She describes this experience decades later in the 1995 science documentary Death by Design/The Life and Times of Life and Times,[6] which also features her identical twin sister Paola, who had entered a decades-long career in the arts.) 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.

Rita Levi-Montalcini founded the European Brain Research Institute, covering the appointment of president. Her role in this institute was at the center of some criticism from some parts of the scientific community in 2010 [7]

Controversies were raised by the collaboration of Prof. Montalcini with the Italian Pharmaceutical Factory Fidia. Since 1975 the scientist promoted the drug Cronassial produced by Fidia from bovine brain. The drug turned out some years later to be able to cause a severe neurological syndrome (Guillain-Barré syndrome). For this reason Germany banned Cronassial in 1983, followed by other countries. Italy prohibited the drug only in 1993.[8][9][10] This episode raised serious critics to Rita Levi-Montalcini.[11]

Senator for Life

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

On 28–29 April 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.[12][13] 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.[14]

She is an agnostic, although on Sunday 17 January 2010 she was present in Rome's main synagogue, during the official visit of pope Benedict XVI.[15]


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. She and her twin were featured in the 1995 science documentary Death by Design / The Life and Times of Life and Times.

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 American scientific honor.

In 1999, Levi-Montalcini was nominated Goodwill Ambassador of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) by FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf.[16]

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

In 2006 Levi-Montalcini 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.

She is a member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and is a founder member of Città della Scienza[17].


  • 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

See also

  • List of female Nobel laureates
  • List of Jewish Nobel laureates


  1. ^ a b c Page at Senate website .
  2. ^ Quirinale.it[dead link]
  3. ^ Holloway, M. (1993) Profile: Rita Levi-Montalcini – Finding the Good in the Bad, Scientific American 268(1), 32-36.
  4. ^ Nature. "Neuroscience: One hundred years of Rita". Nature. http://www.nature.com/news/2009/090401/full/458564a.html. Retrieved 2011-03-16. 
  5. ^ Ansa.it: News in English - Montalcini feted at 100[dead link]
  6. ^ http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0118947/fullcredits#cast
  7. ^ "Self-inflicted damage.The autocratic actions of an institute's founder could destroy a centre of excellence for brain research.Nature 463, 270 (21 January 2010)". http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v463/n7279/full/463270a.html. 
  8. ^ "Qualità Intellettuale". Dmi.unipg.it. http://www.dmi.unipg.it/~mamone/univ/QUALIT.htm. Retrieved 2011-03-16. 
  9. ^ "Fallimenti storici - Farmacovigilanza - Farmacologia - Dica 33". Dica33.it. http://www.dica33.it/argomenti/farmacologia/farmacovigilanza/farmacovigilanza2.asp. Retrieved 2011-03-16. 
  10. ^ "Politica Molecolare: Rita Levi Montalcini e la vicenda Cronossial". Politicamolecolare.blogspot.com. http://politicamolecolare.blogspot.com/2007/11/rita-levi-di-montalcini-e-i.html. Retrieved 2011-03-16. 
  11. ^ "'NOBEL COMPRATO? NON NE SO NULLA'". http://ricerca.repubblica.it/repubblica/archivio/repubblica/1994/02/22/nobel-comprato-non-ne-so-nulla.html. Retrieved 2010-06-06. 
  12. ^ "Mastella: sì al procedimento su Storace". Repubblica.it. 2007-10-17. http://www.repubblica.it/2007/10/sezioni/politica/napolitano-tre/mastella-storace/mastella-storace.html. Retrieved 2011-03-16. 
  13. ^ "Dispetto alla Montalcini al seggio, La Repubblica 14 April 2008". Repubblica.it. http://www.repubblica.it/2008/04/sezioni/politica/elezioni-2008/montalcini/montalcini.html. Retrieved 2011-03-16. 
  14. ^ See: http://www.positanonews.it/dettaglio.php?id=23060
  15. ^ Pope Tries to Soothe Tensions With Jews. The New York Times, Sunday, 17 January 2010.
  16. ^ See: http://www.fao.org/getinvolved/ambassadors/ambassadors/ambassadors-ritalevimontalcini/en/
  17. ^ http://www.idis.cittadellascienza.it/?p=292


  • 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 


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  • LEVI-MONTALCINI, RITA — (1911– ), neurobiologist, Nobel Prize winner. Levi Montalcini was born in Italy and grew up in Turin. She earned her degree in medicine at the University of Turin where she was employed until 1939 when she was barred by the Fascists from… …   Encyclopedia of Judaism

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