Woman of the Week: Rita Levi-Montalcini

This week Paper Epiphanies is honoring the fabulous Rita Levi-Montalcini, a truly badass female who let neither the threat of danger, nor the restrictions of her sex stop her from doing what she wanted. Born in 1909 in Italy to a Jewish family, Rita decided to enter medicine after seeing a close family friend die of stomach cancer. She attended the University of Turin Medical School, much to the initial chagrin of her father, who was afraid a higher education would take away from Rita’s future ability to be a wife and mother (which we say good riddance to if it means giving up her aspirations). Rita remained at the university, studying the nervous system, past graduation but was eventually stopped due to Mussolini’s barring of Jews holding academic or professional careers in 1938. Not being able to work at the university anymore, Rita resourcefully set up a lab in her bedroom where she studied the nervous system in chick embryos (Oh, the classic perform-world-changing-scientific-research-in-your-bedroom phase; we all have one of those…). In 1943, when Germany invaded Italy, Rita and her family fled South to Florence and, with the help of some non-Jewish friends, disguised themselves and went into hiding. In the small living space she shared with her family, Rita set up another lab in the corner, not letting her forced situation hold her back.

Following the Holocaust, Rita was able to duplicate the experiments she had performed at her home laboratories, resulting in her receiving a research associate position at Washington University in St. Louis, which she held for the next 30 years. In this position, Rita performed research in which she discovered the existence of growth factors, or the causes of cell growth, most particularly nerve cell growth. For this research she and her fellow researcher Stanley Cohen won the nobel prize in 1986. Rita also headed several important organizations including the Research Center of Neurobiology in Rome, the European Brain Research Institute (an organization which she founded) and the Institute of Cell Biology of the Italian National Council of Research in Rome. As if Rita wasn’t already decorated enough, she even had a political career, where she became a Senator for Life (2001) in Italy and received many prestigious awards across her lengthy 103 years on this earth (the oldest Nobel Prize winner yet). Her ingenious research, a lot of it performed in high-danger (and rather sketchy if you ask us) conditions, make Rita a hugely influential figure on history and biology. Intelligent and brave, Rita is beyond worthy of being recognized as this week’s Woman of the Week.