Obit of the Day: Oldest Living Nobel Prize Winner
Rita Levi-Montalcini won the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1986, along with Stanley Cohen, “for their discoveries of growth factors.” It was the culmination of over 50 years of research, as well as overcoming societal norms and Fascists.
Dr. Levi-Montalcini was born in Turin (Torino), Italy in 1909. She had decided early on to become a doctor but her father was initially opposed. He believed that a woman with a professional career could not give enough attention to her roles as wife and mother. When she turned 20, Dr. Levi-Montalcini told her father she could not live up to his “feminine ideal” and asked to attend medical school. He conceded. (Dr. Levi-Montalcini’s twin sister Paola also eschewed her father’s advice and became a prominent painter and illustrator.)
A 1936 summa cum laude graduate of the University of Turin, Dr. Levi-Montalcini had not decided whether to become a practicing physician or direct her interest to neurological research. The decision, unfortunately, was made for her.
In 1938 Fascist leader Benito Mussolini issued the Manifesto per la Difesa della Razza (“Manifesto on the Defense of the Race”) which, among other things, forbid non-Aryan races to practice medicine. (The Levi-Montalcini’s were Jewish.) Dr. Levi-Montalcini and her family chose to remain in Italy rather than leave for the United States. Dr. Levi-Montalcini decided to focus on neurological research, mainly the growth and connection of nerve cells. So she built a research lab - in her bedroom.
Working with chick embryos Dr. Levi-Montalcini worked to discovered how nerve cell lattices developed. She was forced to move twice during the war: once in 1941 because of the bombing of Turin by the Allies and once in 1943 when the German’s invaded their Axis partner. In 1944 as the Allies began to cross into Italy, Dr. Levi-Montalcini served as a physician in a refugee camp.
The next change in her fortunes was when she was invited to Washington University in St. Louis in 1947 by Viktor Hamburger who was doing similar research and was impressed by the Italian doctor’s results. She planned to stay a year but remained at the college for thirty, retiring in 1977. It was here that she began working with her eventual co-laureate, Stanley Cohen.
Dr. Levi-Montalcini, who was the first Nobel Prize winner to reach the age of 100, would later open a research unit in Rome and serve as the Director of the Institute of Cell Biology of the Italian National Council of Research (1969-1978).
Honored by Italy with the title of Knight Grand Cross (the highest honor bestowed on the country’s citizens) and named “Senator for Life” in 2001 by Prime Minister Carlo Azeglio Ciampi (only five people can hold the title at any one time), Dr. Rita Levi-Montalcini died on December 30, 2012 at the age of 103.
Random note: Her brother Gino, was a noted architect.
(Image, undated and uncaptioned, is courtesy of Fanpage.it)
Other female physicians featured by Obit of the Day:
Dr. Mary Ellen Avery - whose discovery helped save nearly a million babies
Dr. Helen Nash - pioneer in pediatrics in St. Louis
Dr. Leila Denmark - world’s oldest physician