Rita Levi-Montalcini (1909-2012), Neurophysiologist

Levi-MontalciniBorn in Turin, Italy, Rita Levi-Montalcini had to overcome her father’s objections that women should not study in order to obtain her degree in medicine and surgery from Turin University in 1936. She often credited her own mentor, anatomist Giuseppe Levi, for her success.

Her early career in Italy during the Fascist regime was hampered because as a Jew she was banned from working at a university. Instead she carried out her experiments in the bedroom of her home where she studied chicken embryos, but the German invasion of Italy forced her and her family to go underground. When eggs became scarce during the war, she would bike around the countryside to buy them from farmers.

In 1947 she was invited to work at Washington University in St Louis. Her research on the growth of cells increased the understanding of many conditions, including tumors and senile dementia. She won the Nobel Prize in 1986 for her discovery of nerve growth factors. The women scientists she mentored believed they learned tenacity, focus, the power of the mind, and the importance of relationships as a result of her attention to their development.

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