Rita Levi Montalcini was born on April 22, 1909, in Turin, Italy. In 1930, she enrolled in the Turin Medical School, graduating in 1936. Her academic career was cut short by Mussolini's 1938 Manifesto della Razza and the subsequent introduction of laws barring Jews from academic and professional careers.
During World War II, she conducted experiments from a home laboratory, studying the growth of nerve fibers in chick embryos which laid the groundwork for much of her later research. In 1943, she fled with her family to Florence, where they lived underground until the end of the war.
In 1947, Levi Montalcini accepted an invitation to Washington University in St. Louis, where she did her most important work: isolating nerve growth factors. 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 1971, the Laboratory of Cellular Biology.
In 2001 she has been nominated as Senator-for-life by Italian President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi.
The following press release from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences describes Cohen and Montalcini's work:
“The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine is awarded for discoveries which are of fundamental importance for our understanding of the mechanisms which regulate cell and organ growth. The pattern of cellular growth has long been known, but it is the Italian developmental biologist Rita Levi-Montalcini and the American biochemist Stanley Cohen with their discovery of nerve growth factor (NGF) and epidermal growth factor (EGF), respectively, who could show how the growth and differentiation of a cell is regulated. NGF and EGF were the first of many growth-regulating signal substances to be discovered and characterized.
The discovery of NGF and EGF has opened new fields of widespread importance to basic science. As a direct consequence we may increase our understanding of many disease states such as developmental malformations, degenerative changes in senile dementia, delayed wound healing and tumour diseases. The characterization of these growth factors is therefore expected, in the near future, to result in the development of new therapeutic agents and improved treatment in various clinical diseases.”