The Life of Rita Levi-Montalcini

The death of neuroscientist Rita Levi-Montalcini is now somewhat old news, but I want to write about her because she was an inspirational badass. Here’s a summary of why she was a badass:

1) She was still doing neuroscience research at age 100.

2) She started doing neuroscience research before WWII, when there were very few female neuroscientists.

3)  She was not only a scientist but also a committed feminist who promoted education for women worldwide, especially in Africa.

4)  She got a Nobel prize for research she began doing in her bedroom using household supplies and chicken eggs, and she did this while on the run from Fascists and Nazis.

Got your attention? Good. Now here’s a more extensive summary of her amazing life, based on her incredibly well written autobiography, In Praise of Imperfection.

Rita Levi-Montalcini at age 100

Levi-Montalcini was born in Turin, Italy, on April 22, 1909, into what she describes as a very “Victorian” family. Her family was Jewish, though largely secular.

Levi-Montalcini decided that she wanted to study medicine after the illness and death of her governess. She was twenty-years-old at the time, and three years out of high school. Rita told her father that she wasn’t suited for marriage and motherhood, so she wanted to return to her studies. Though her father disapproved, insisting that a medical career would be too hard for a woman, he eventually acquiesced. With her father’s permission, Levi-Montalcini and her cousin (whose father had passed away, and therefore had greater independence) studied Greek, Latin, and Mathematics with tutors, and ultimately passed the examinations necessary to get into university.

She and her cousin enrolled at the Turin School of Medicine. Besides the two of them, there were only five other girls attending the medical school. In their second year, she and her cousin, along with two third-year male students, became interns with the famous anatomist and histologist Giuseppe Levi at the Institute of Anatomy at the Turin School of Medicine.

Levi-Montalcini was assigned the task of researching the formation of collagen by muscular, connective, and epithelial tissue. In investigating this topic, she wound up disproving the theory that collagen reticular fibers were produced by cells present only in bone, cartilage, and subcutaneous tissues. She showed that that the formation of reticular fibers was a property not just of connective tissues, but of epithelial and muscular tissues as well. Though she did not pursue this line of research further, the experience taught her the research techniques she would ultimately use to solve the puzzles surrounding Nerve Growth Factor, for which she shared the 1986 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Stanley Cohen.

With the rise of anti-Semitism in Italy, Levi-Montalcini was forced to abandon her research. At the time, she was working in Turin’s Clinic for Nervous and Mental Diseases, researching the differentiation of neural circuits that mediate motility, and how these circuits process input from the spinal and medulla oblongata segments of embryos. She submitted an article on her results for publication, which was rejected because she was Jewish. Even though most of her non-Jewish colleagues opposed the anti-Semitism of the Fascists, she didn’t want them to risk being affiliated with her so she left for Brussels, Belgium to continue her work at a neurological institute. After a short period in Belgium, it became clear that Europe was poised for a second World War, and that Belgium was in imminent danger of a Nazi takeover, so Levi-Montalcini returned to Italy.

In Italy, Jews were officially banned from both medical practice and research. A visit from a former schoolmate convinced Levi-Montalcini to set up a small laboratory in her bedroom to study the nervous system. Though she lacked the equipment to study electrophysiology, which is what she had researched in Brussels, she was able to use her experience in microsurgery and the selective coloration of nervous tissues to analyze other features of the nervous system. She could also easily procure chick embryos. To make up for her lack in proper research tools, Levi-Montalcini made sharp microscalpels and spatulas out of common sewing needles, an incubator using a common thermostat, and managed to obtain the sorts of glassware, chemicals, and instruments that one of her “nineteenth-century predecessors would have found necessary.”

In her bedroom experiments, Levi-Montalcini studied how “the excision of still non-innervated tissues in the peripheral territories, or limbs, affects the differentiation and subsequent development both of motor cells in the spinal cord and of sensory cells in the dorsal root ganglia at a very early stage of embryonic life.” When her former advisor, Giuseppe Levi, managed to sneak through Germany from Belgium back to Italy, he joined Rita in her bedroom laboratory. Together they discovered that in chick embryos whose budding limbs have been excised, the differentiation of nerve cells proceeds as it would in embryos with intact limbs, but, in the absence of a trophic factor, the nerve cells that reach the stump of the amputated limb die. And they did this while, as Levi-Montalcini describes it, “German armies were advancing throughout Europe, spreading destruction and death wherever they went and threatening the very survival of Western civilization.” Their ability to persevere despite these conditions stemmed, she writes, from “the desperate and partially unconscious desire of human beings to ignore what is happening in situations where full awareness might lead one to self-destruction.”

As the bombing over Turin by Anglo-American forces worsened, Rita and her family left for Piemonte in 1941, where she once again set up a small laboratory in a country cottage with Giuseppe Levi. When the German army invaded Italy in the Fall of 1943, Rita and her family fled south. They managed to use public transportation and stay at people’s homes by adopting fake identities and hiding the fact that they were Jews. They settled in Florence, where they lived underground until the end of the war. When the Anglo-American armies arrived in Florence, driving the German invaders back, Rita offered her services at the Anglo-American headquarters as both a nurse and a doctor. She found the job emotionally taxing, though, which is why she decided to stick with research and not return to practicing medicine.

When the war was over in Italy in May 1945, Rita and her family returned to Turin, where both she and Giuseppe Levi resumed their previous positions at the Turin Medical School. Two years later, she was invited by Professor Viktor Hamburger to join him in St. Louis to continue work they had done earlier on the developing nervous system of the chick embryo. She initially intended to be in St. Louis for about a year, but the excellent results of her research, which would ultimately lead to the discovery of Nerve Growth Factor and winning the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1986, made her postpone her return to Italy.

In 1956, Levi-Montalcini became Associate Professor at Washington University in St. Louis, and in 1958 she became full professor there. She maintained her professorship at Washington University until her retirement in 1977.  During her time at St. Louis, Levi-Montalcini served as the director of the Institute of Cell Biology of the Italian National Council of Research in Rome. In 1978, though no longer Director, Levi-Montalcini continued her work as a researcher at the institute in Rome. In 2001 she was made a Senator for Life for her work in civil rights and science, and at the age of 96, she founded the European Brain Research Institute in 2005.

Rita Levi-Montalcini died on December 30, 2012, at age 103. What an amazing human.


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