Nobel Prize

Nobel laureate Rita Levi-Montalcini dies aged 103

Rita Levi-Montalcini, who won Nobel Prize in 1986, was oldest living laureate

PUBLISHED : Monday, 31 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 31 December, 2012, 6:31am


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Nobel medicine laureate Rita Levi-Montalcini, a neurologist and developmental biologist, died yesterday at her home in Rome aged 103.

Italy's so-called "Lady of the Cells" was the oldest living Nobel laureate at the time of her death.

Levi-Montalcini shared the prize with colleague Stanley Cohen in 1986 for their ground-breaking discovery of growth factors.

Their work has helped understanding of such disorders as cancer, birth defects and Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases.

Born into a wealthy Jewish intellectual family in northern Turin in 1909, Montalcini was the daughter of an engineer and an artist whom she described in her Nobel autobiography as "an exquisite human being."

Overcoming her father's resistance to the idea of a professional career for a woman, Levi-Montalcini entered medical school in Turin aged 20.

Levi-Montalcini shunned marriage and motherhood to devote herself to a medical career.

But in 1936, Mussolini decreed racial laws that barred Jews from pursuing academic and professional careers. So instead of embarking on a specialisation in neurology and psychiatry, she set up a small laboratory in her bedroom, performing experiments on chick embryos.

The Allied bombing of Turin in 1941 forced the family to flee to the Piedmont countryside, where Levi-Montalcini rebuilt the lab.

Two years later, with the German invasion, the family fled to Florence, where they lived underground until the end of the war.

Finally, when the war in Italy ended in May 1945, Levi-Montalcini was able to resume her career.

Her work on chick embryos, published in Switzerland and Belgium, led to an invitation to a research position at Washington University in Saint Louis, Missouri, in 1947.

Although she initially planned to stay for a brief stint, she wound up staying 30 years.

It was there that she and Cohen studied mouse tumours implanted in chick embryos.

In 2001, Italy's then president Carlo Azeglio Ciampi named Levi-Montalcini a senator for life.