Born on April 22nd, 1909 in Turin as the youngest of four sisters. Her father, Adamo Levi, was an electrical engineer “and a gifted mathematician”, her mother Adele Montalcini was just as gifted a painter. In the family ruled a patriarchal, “typically Victorian” life style, and only the oldest son was destined to study at university. Rita, however, managed to close the gaps in her knowledge in just 8 months after graduating from school and was permitted to study medicine in Turin. Here she became a pupil of the renowned histologist Giuseppe Levi at the side of her fellow students Salvador Luria and Renato Dulbecco, who later both received the Nobel Prize for Medicine in the 1970s.
In 1936, she was awarded her doctorate cum laude as a Dr. med. in surgery and intended to take a three-year special course in neurology and psychiatry. But then she fell victim to the Fascist’s racial policy. After studying briefly in Brussels, on her return she discovered that “non-Aryan” Italian citizens were prohibited by law from following an academic career. The war prevented her family from emigrating to America, and they decided to stay in Turin. After G. Levis’s flight from Belgium, they both found refuge in a country house, where they set up a private laboratory and were able to continue with their cellular biological research work. Following the invasion in 1943, they both had to go underground, and they remained in Florence until the end of the war. R. Levi had already worked as a doctor and nurse in an Allied refugee camp “permanently under threat from typhoid fever and other infectious diseases”.
In 1947, she then accepted an invitation to travel to the United States. Here she remained for three decades at Washington University in St. Louis (Missouri), where she was made a professor in 1958. But she did she did not cut her ties with her mother country. In 1962, she was involved in the founding of a cellular-biological laboratory in Rome by the National Research Board, and seven years later she took over as extra-official head of this institute. She returned from the USA in 1977, and 2 years later she retired in Rome as a guest professor. Together with the American biochemist Stanley Cohen, she was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1986 for discovering molecular growth factors in nerve cells.
Rita Levi-Montalcini passed away on December 30, 2012.