Dr. Rita Levi-Montalcini,a Revolutionary in the Study of the Brain & Nobel Prize Winner, Dies at 103
Dr. Rita Levi-Montalcini, a Nobel Prize-winning neurologist who discovered critical chemical tools that the body uses to direct cell growth and build nerve networks, opening the way for the study of how those processes can go wrong in diseases like dementia and cancer, died on Sunday at her home in Rome. She was 103.
Scientists had virtually no idea how embryo cells built a latticework of intricate connections to other cells when Dr. Levi-Montalcini began studying chicken embryos in the bedroom of her house in Turin, Italy, during World War II. After years of obsessive study, much of it at Washington University in St. Louis with Dr. Viktor Hamburger, she found a protein that, when released by cells, attracted nerve growth from nearby developing cells.
She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Turin medical school in 1936, the same year that Mussolini issued a manifesto barring non-Aryan Italians from having professional careers. She began her research anyway, setting up a small laboratory in her home to study chick embryos, inspired by the work of Dr. Hamburger, a prominent researcher in St. Louis who also worked with the embryos.