Those who choose science as a profession know that they are not picking the easiest path, especially at the start. But any researcher who is tempted to surrender to adversity has a role model to be inspired by: the Italian neuroscientist Rita Levi-Montalcini (22 April 1909 – 30 December 2012), who built her career during a world war and overcame what in her country and time were two monumental obstacles—being a woman and a Jew. And she not only triumphed, she won a Nobel Prize.
In fact, it is not that Levi-Montalcini could have opted for other more comfortable options, but that it would have sufficed to accept the destiny that her father, the electrical engineer and mathematician Adamo Levi, had already planned for her and her two sisters. Hers was a Victorian family, as described by Rita herself. Her mother, the painter Adele Montalcini, lived subject to her husband. Rita and her sisters were not given access to university, as this could interfere with their future role as wives and mothers, and for a well-to-do family in Turin, suitors would not be lacking.
But at an early age, Rita understood that the complacent wife was not her place in life. After some hesitation, she opted decidedly for medicine. Overcoming the reluctance of her father and her own academic shortcomings, she entered the University of Turin, where she shared the classroom with future Nobel Prize winners Salvatore Luria and Renato Dulbecco. The three were students of a figure who would be essential in the career of Levi-Montalcini, the neurohistologist Giuseppe Levi. After graduating with honours in 1936, Rita remained as a researcher under the wing of her mentor, beginning her studies on the development of the nervous system in the chicken embryo.
The breath of the Nazi advance
Like so many other people at that time, Levi-Montalcini’s life was going to be interwoven with the political turmoil in Europe. In 1939, with the new laws against Jews imposed by Benito Mussolini, Rita left her post at the university, transferring her experiments to her own bedroom. There she set up a laboratory with her microscope and some adapted household utensils, such as sewing needles and watchmaker’s tweezers.
In the following years, Levi-Montalcini would feel the breath of the Nazi advance on the back of her neck. In the spring of 1940, she returned to Turin from a stay in Brussels shortly before the German invasion of Belgium took place. After the alliance between Mussolini and Hitler, Allied bombs began to fall on Turin in 1941, forcing the Levi-Montalcini family to move to their cottage in the mountains. Rita brought her equipment with her. To obtain research material, she visited local farmers and asked for fertilized eggs to feed her children (which she did not have). In 1943 and before the advance of the Nazi troops, the family was once again forced to flee to the south, where Rita rebuilt her laboratory in a basement in Florence.
By the time the war finally ended, Levi-Montalcini had already laid the foundations of what would be the great discovery of her life. During those years she had replicated some experiments of the German embryologist Viktor Hamburger, from Washington University of St. Luis (USA). Hamburger had observed that those chicken embryos deprived of their limbs did not develop the nerves destined for these regions, which the scientist interpreted as a lack of differentiation in those neurons. Levi-Montalcini agreed on the results, but not on the explanation: the Italian proposed that these nerves were differentiated, but died due to the lack of some factor that would have been provided by the absent limb.
Nerve Growth Factor
When Hamburger learned about Levi-Montalcini’s work, he invited her to his laboratory for what was initially going to be a collaboration of a few months. She ended up staying there for 30 years and the famed neuroembryologist had to surrender to the evidence that the correct hypothesis was that of the refugee scientist who had begged for eggs from farmers.
In the 1950s and in collaboration with biochemist Stanley Cohen, Levi-Montalcini isolated Nerve Growth Factor (NGF), a protein essential for the survival of neurons. In 1986, Levi-Montalcini and Cohen received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine “for their discoveries of growth factors.”
But important as NGF is, the contribution of the scientist acquires an infinitely deeper scope when placed in its context. NGF was the first of what has become a very extensive family of communication messengers between cells, a field that today permeates all areas of biology. In finding the first of these factors, the long-lived researcher—she lived to the age of 103—did much more than discover a crucial biomolecule, in the words of the Karolinska Institute on the occasion of the Nobel Prize, “she created a concept out of apparent chaos.”