Rita Levi-Montalcini Had Nerves of Steel

When we think of role models, it’s easy to categorize them narrowly on the basis of their skill set. We might say that he’s a great mathematician, or that she is an excellent chemist. Some role models are admirable on a deeper, human level. These are the kinds of heroes who obliterate all the obstacles dropped in front of them to tirelessly pursue their interests and devote their lives to doing the kind of stuff that makes the world better for everyone.

Italian Nobel Laureate Rita Levi-Montalcini is this kind of role model. Her scientific curiosity and unconventional thinking led her to discover nerve growth factor (NGF), a naturally occurring protein which we now know is responsible for nerve growth and regulation. Rita’s discovery provided great insight into the way the nervous system develops. The discoveries that she made underlie much of modern research into neurologically degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and cancer, and NGF is used experimentally the treatment of both.

Victorian Rebel

Young and contemplative Rita. Via DailyMail

Rita was born in Turin, Italy in 1909 into an upper middle-class family. Her mother, Adele Montalcini was an accomplished painter. Her father, Ademo Levi, was an electrical engineer and entrepreneur. In her autobiography, Rita described her home life as loving and accepting, although not particularly permissive. Her father held the prevailing Victorian belief that women were designed purely for domesticity. Ademo felt that professional careers would hinder his daughters’ capacities as wives and mothers.

At age twenty, Rita decided she was not cut out for domestic life. This she was sure of; she never did marry or have children. Beyond this, Rita didn’t know what the future held. She’d attended a girls’ high school where math, science, and the classics were simply not taught. Rita wanted to study the classics and philosophy, but she also wanted to write and to fight leprosy in Africa. When a close family friend died of stomach cancer, her course became clear: Rita would to devote her life to medicine.

Rita’s mother helped convince her father that medical school wasn’t such a terrible thing. He eventually gave in and even helped her study for the admission exams. In 1930, Rita entered the University of Turin and in 1936 graduated summa cum laude with a degree in medicine and surgery. She stayed on at UT after graduation, working as a neurobiology assistant to Giuseppe Levi (no relation), a professor and cell biologist she greatly admired who had ignited in Rita an interest in the developing nervous system.

In the lab, 1960s. Via Washington University

Experiments in Hiding

In the early 1930s, she read a study by experimental embryologist Viktor Hamburger about nerve death and cell differentiation in amputated chicken embryos. Rita soon ran her own version of the experiment. Although she ultimately obtained the same results as Hamburger, she disagreed with his conclusion that nerve generation and survival was completely target-dependent.

Rita might have spent her entire career at the University of Turin if not for the Italian race laws enacted across Italy in 1938. She and all other non-Aryan Italians including Giuseppe Levi were stripped of their civil rights and forcefully removed from academia. Rita fled to Belgium and continued her work in a laboratory there, but the refuge was short-lived. When WWII broke out the following year, Rita moved with her family to their summer cottage outside of Turin. She hunkered down in a makeshift bedroom laboratory to study nerve growth in the amputated limbs of embryonic chicks. Armed with little more than a microscope and an incubator for experimentation, Rita found her focus in the neurological questions she vowed to answer.

When Germany invaded northern Italy in 1943, Rita and her family fled once again and lived under assumed identities in Florence. Undaunted, Rita recreated her bedroom lab and continued working. Most everything was scarce during wartime, including chicken eggs. Rita would bicycle around the countryside looking for farms. If a farmer was reluctant to sell her fertilized eggs, she convinced them by saying they were more nutritious for her children. Bowing to scarcity, the family would often make post-experimental omelets with the eggs.

Finding the ‘It’ Factor

A drawing from Rita’s Nobel lecture that shows mouse tumor tissue on the left and embryonic chicken tissue on the right. Attracted by nerve growth factor secreted by the tumor, the chick tissue bloomed with nerve growth in a matter of hours. Via Scientopia

After the war, Rita received an invitation from Viktor Hamburger to study nerve growth with him at Washington University in St. Louis. He had read the paper she’d published in response to his own research and found her ideas intriguing.

A biochemist named Stanley Cohen joined their research team in the early 1950s. They experimented with the effect of mouse tumor tissue on nerve development in embryonic chicks and soon discovered that tumor cells placed in the same growth material as some tissue from a chicken embryo caused the embryo to blossom with new nerve growth. A short time later, they identified the secret sauce as a protein secreted by the tumor that promoted nerve growth by activating receptors in the chick tissue.

Rita’s work was appreciated, but her research was somewhat undervalued until the 1980s. In 1986, she and Stanley Cohen were co-awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Awards began pouring in from all over the world after that, including several honorary degrees and a National Medal of Science.

The Nobel Laureate in 1975. (fair use image)

A Stoic Scientist

After returning to Rome in the 1980s, Rita made it a point to encourage young women in neuroscience, devoting hours to talking with them about their work. She also created a foundation alongside her fraternal twin sister Paola that helps women in Africa obtain secondary education and professional training.

Rita conducted research until her death in 2012 at age 103. At some point, she started putting NGF in her eyes every day. Throughout her long and storied life, Rita chose her path and followed it with a tireless tenacity. She professed in her autobiography that she had a habit of underestimating obstacles. She credited her success and longevity to hard work and determination, explaining that she had no mental complexes to cloud her faculties.

26 thoughts on “Rita Levi-Montalcini Had Nerves of Steel

  1. ” The discoveries that she made underlie much of modern research into neurologically degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and cancer, and NGF is used experimentally the treatment of both.”

    Spinal cord damage sounds like another.

    “After the war, Rita received an invitation from Viktor Hamburger to study nerve growth with him at Washington University in St. Louis.”

    Wonder what his parents were thinking?

    ” At some point, she started putting NGF in her eyes every day. ”

    That would be an interesting biographical aspect to explore.

    1. Spinal cord damage is actually a really complex problem. It’s not just that the neural tissue gets damaged; shortly after the injury occurs, a kind of scar tissue starts to set up within the injury site that actively prevents the nerves from regrowing across the injured area. So just encouraging nerve growth is not enough.

  2. Great write-up of a fascinating life but to be slightly pedantic, the title of “Victorian Rebel” is not accurate. Levi-Montalcini’s life did not overlap with that of Queen Victoria’s at all. In fact, here in the UK we’d had two more more monarchs while Levi-Montalcini was still growing up!

    1. To _be_ pedantic, the article only claims that her father had the “Victorian belief” that women should be wives and not scientists. (Whether or not this is fair to QV or her times, it’s the stereotype.)

      But yeah, when I was reading through, I did a historical double-take as well.

  3. This is a great write-up about a very influential scientist.

    To make things a bit clearer, the reason why Levi-Montalcini was stripped of her academic position was because she was Jewish, and the Italian Fascists had enacted explicitly anti-Semitic laws similar to the German Nuremberg Laws of a few years prior.

  4. Social justice is just another trick to get people to leave the status quo alone on theory it’ll fix itself. The men are not yet evolved enough to stay their hand from taking the cheap easy shot of shooting down half the competition based on the myth of gender differences.

    Social justice is HOW we got here! I’m afraid we’ll actually have to deal with it rather than continuing to sweep it under the rug using the social justice myth.

    Women in programming is how we got to the Moon, and you know the names of many others that ignored the men and brought forth their great works.

    1. There are many exceptional females, but they are still exceptions, the statistics tell a very different story and there is a very good evolutionary reason for the differences in sexes. Males are expendable, one successful male can inseminate many females, but successful females can’t spread their genes in the same manner. The female uses males, via the X chromosome, to spread the bell curve and generate both exceptionally smart and exceptionally stupid males. This genetic risk taking is not typical of females as they conform to a taller bell curve, because being reliable is how you ensure that your DNA (your child) survives.

      If you people think that I am putting down females then you are idiots, I was actually pointing out the reverse, exceptional females and their genes are more important, not less!

      1. “If you people think that I am putting down females”, Yes, you are. If I said, say, “Hey, not all Italians are criminals. There are some very fine Italians, exceptional ones, but they are the exception.” Does that sound to you like I just said something positive about Italians?

        Secondly, you have a Biology 101 level understanding of evolution, if that much, and you overlay it with Rudyard Kipling style just-so stories to explain the status quo.

        The company I work for is large and there are a lot of offices in different parts of the world. The gender ratio of programmers and electrical engineers is very skewed in the US, but not nearly so much in, say, China. Do you think that X chromosomes behave differently in China than they do in the US?

        Most of modern mathematics was developed by men. But with rare exception, less than a century ago women weren’t even allowed into graduate programs, and few went to college. Do you think the lack of women doing groundbreaking math was due to their “nurturing-oriented brains” or because of the cultural roadblocks?

        Yes, there are gender differences in brains, but the variation of that bell curve is many times greater than any difference in the averages for men and women.

  5. Your logic is rubbish, “believe in social justice” does not mean you are a SJW, the term in that (derisive) context clearly makes reference to that particular type of fool who are so stupid that they do deny the science.

    Anyway all of your “issues:” are a distraction from point which is that smart females have a far higher chance of producing other smart females, and unless they donate their eggs those superior genes that they have are lost. I did not dictate how they managed to reproduce, these days that could actually mean several very different options.

    As for the Google guy, clearly you didn’t read what he actually wrote, which was entirely reasonable and correct, if not politically savvy.

    1. Dan, you say what the Google guy wrote was reasonable. No, I didn’t read all of the stuff he wrote. But I read what working biologists said about his writing. Some of the specific researchers he cited to support his claims said that their work does not support his claims.

      As for women donating their eggs for the betterment of the species, and “superior genes,” I don’t know where to begin. You talk like a eugenics fan. And your persistent use of “females” rather than “women” makes me think you are observing them as if they are a science experiment. Really creepy.

  6. Matt you are a bloody clown, every paper that talks about the influence of the X chromosome on male development proves that, in those areas, the male’s mother is more important than the father, because, you idiot 100%, on your X chromosome came from your mother and 100% of your mitochondrial DNA. This is not the case if you were female as they have a random selection of activation from both parents, but still get 100% of their mitochondrial DNA from their mother. The mitochondrial DNA is vital for metabolism, including in the brain where variations in it do account for differences in cognitive performance. For every x-linked disorder suffered by a male there is another male who gained an x-linked advantage, and yet another who finds themselves in an average position. It is the distribution that is wider between sexes.

    Equality is about rights, not configuration or specific potential, in fact equality is about rights regardless of difference. We are all different, but it should not matter at the individual level even if it is significant at the statistical (group) level, so long as the individual can prove their specific fitness. Not testing that at all because of an assumption based on statistical trends would be discrimination, and wrong. Pointing out that on average that one group is more or less likely to be fit is perfectly scientific, if often irrelevant. However in the case I made it is entirely relevant. The more smart women that have kids compared with stupid women the better of humanity is, how they manage that I’ll leave up to their ingenuity. Universal female emancipation may come down to a bag of silicon elastomer and a life support system for the embryo within it. But in the mean time if you can’t grok that ladies fee free to throw yourself out of the gene pool, it is your choice, just make sure it is a fully informed one.

  7. Good news is that now she could have sell those ultra valuable eggs, often to wealthy people who can afford the next generation’s education to help pay for her graduate studies. Outsource the uterus.
    The only sad part is the kid looses a mentor, though most people I know with professor parents got little to no mentoring and unless their life packet included a generous trust fund became pub band drifters.

  8. I wish to apologize if it was I that caused the disturbance. There was no trolling intended. I just respect the ladies as equals that have far far too oft been dismissed and seriously would like to see society give welcome too, and support, and give a hand up to the better half of our race. I fear my wording failed my intents. Nothing out of line or insulting was wished.

    I did state my opinion. Be me judged, it was honest and clean of heart. There was no trolling in progress. Not my style. Debate, sure, but trolling, no.

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