Photo of Rita Levi-Montalcini

Rita Levi-Montalcini

  • National Medal of Science
  • Biological Sciences

For a major breakthrough in neurobiology by her discovery of the Nerve Growth Factor and its effect on the growth of the sympathetic nervous system which set the stage for worldwide studies of the molecules involved in normal and malignant growth.

Growing up in a Jewish family in the early 20th century in Italy, Rita Levi-Montalcini’s pursuit of scientific knowledge was full of roadblocks. When she was a child, her father did not want her to attend a university. When she was 20, she realized she did not want the life he intended for her and received his permission to pursue her studies instead.

But by the time she graduated from medical school, Prime Minister Benito Mussolini banned non-Aryan Italians from having professional careers. So, she decided to study chicken embryos in her bedroom while World War II raged on.

Her research eventually took her to Washington University in St. Louis, where she and Stanley Cohen discovered the nerve growth factor — a protein that develops growth in the nervous system — in the 1950s. Continuing to discover other growth factors for specific cells, their research broadened scientific understand of how cells develop and differentiate — how humans are able grow from one cell into an organism. It also allowed scientists to understand and develop therapies for cell growth disorders, such as cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.

By Jacob Kerr