Lovely Rita

Posted by on April 15, 2019 in Blog, Dame designate, History, women scientists, Women's equality issues | 2 comments

Rita Levi Montalcini/Presidenza della Repubblica

I love languages, and for some time now I have been studying Italian. This has been a slow journey; the languages I learned at school, with regular lessons during the week, homework, dictation and endless tests firmly imprinted the grammar and vocabulary in my memory banks.

An evening class once a week, with a small amount of homework and life that keeps getting in the way, means that progress sometimes feels like it’s being measured in millimetres. But KBO* and all that.

So now I’m going to do my Italian homework. Hang on, I hear you say, I thought you were writing a blog. Yes, isn’t it marvellous? I’m combining the two. In class last week we studied Italian people who had won Nobel prizes in a number of disciplines.  Readers of damesnet will not be surprised to learn that of the 12 people we learned about, only one was a woman – Grazia Deledda.  In 1926 she was the first Italian woman to receive the prize, for Literature, and I am looking forward to exploring her writings.

But I digress; back to my homework. My task this week is to read and answer questions on another Italian female Laureate whom I had never heard of. Her name was Rita Levi-Montalcini, and she received the Nobel Prize in 1986. Her life story is an illustration of brilliance, bravery and tenacity.

Rita Levi-Montalcini was born in Turin to a Jewish family in 1909. She wanted to study medicine, but had to persuade her father, who took the view that women should be wives and mothers.  Fortunately for science, Rita convinced him, and she graduated from Turin University summa cum laude with a degree in medicine and surgery in 1936. She stayed working at the university, where she studied the nervous system and learned a technique for silver staining nerve cells that made them visible under a microscope.

In 1938 Mussolini introduced legislation in Italy that forbade Jews to work in universities and in many professions, including medicine. Rita moved to Belgium and then returned to Italy with her family, where they lived in hiding in Florence, using false papers and protected by non-Jewish friends, thereby avoiding the horror of the Holocaust.

Despite the ongoing threat, and deprived of the use of a laboratory, Rita continued to work in her bedroom, where she set up a lab using surgical instruments made from sewing needles. After Florence was liberated in 1944, Rita served as a doctor in a refugee camp. The family finally returned to Turin, but the American embryologist Victor Hamburger invited her to Washington University in St Louis, having seen some of her published papers. Rita arrived in the US in 1947, ending up as a professor at Washington University. Working with Stanley Cohen, a biochemist at the university, she isolated nerve growth factor, a protein that promotes nerve growth in nearby developing cells. In time the scientific community came to realise that, along with other growth factors that were discovered later, it offered possible treatments for conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, infertility and cancer.

For this discovery, Rita Levi-Montalcini and Stanley Cohen were awarded the 1986 Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine. Having already helped establish the Institute of Cell Biology in Rome in 1962, Rita went on to set up the European Brain Research Institute in 2002. Her list of awards and honours from the scientific community is longer than my arm. Italy made her a Senator for Life at the age of 92. She continued researching throughout her life and died in her home in Rome in 2012, aged 103.

*or Keep Buggering On, as Churchill was wont to say.

Now that is a dame!


  1. You’re right Barbara, what a dame!
    It never ceases to amaze me that so many achievements of outstanding women are new to me.

    You are opening up new horizons by researching such interesting characters and all I can say is…
    Grazie molto!

    • E grazie anche a te!

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