Rita Levi Montalcini was born on April 22, 1909 in Turin, together with her twin sister Paola. She graduated in medicine from the Institute of Human Anatomy of the University of Turin with Prof. Giuseppe Levi. Since the early years of university she has devoted herself to the study of the nervous system. In 1938, the proclamation of the racial laws forbade her from continuing her studies at the university. This does not prevent her from continuing her studies on the mechanisms of differentiation of the nervous system first in Belgium and then again in Turin in 1940, in a small private laboratory. During the German occupation, she and her family spend a period in Florence to hide from the Nazis, but keep in constant contact with the leaders of the Action Party. At the invitation of Prof. Viktor Hamburger in 1947 she moved to the United States to Washington University in St Louis in Missouri, to continue the research begun in Turin and to teach neurobiology. In 1952 she went to Brazil to continue her in vitro culture experiments, at the Institute of Biophysics of the University of Rio de Janeiro, as a guest of the director Prof. Carlo Chagas. The experiments carried out in Brazil in December 1952 lead to the identification of the growth factor of nerve cells (Nerve Growth Factor, acronym NGF). Following her return to St. Louis in the winter of 1953, she is joined in research by the young biochemist Stanley Cohen. Together, using the in vitro system designed by Rita Levi Montalcini, they carry out the first biochemical characterization of the growth factor. This work was awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1986. In 1969 she settled permanently in Italy to take over the direction of the Institute of Cell Biology of the CNR in Rome, to which she still dedicates part of her time. From 1983 to 1998 she directed the Institute of the Italian Encyclopedia, moreover she is a member of the most prestigious scientific academies, such as the National Academy of the Lincei, the Pontifical Academy, the Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Sciences in the USA and the Royal Society. She is the president of the Rita Levi-Montalcini Onlus Foundation, which finances scholarships to support the education of African women. In 2001, she was appointed senator for life by the President of the Republic. In 2002 she founded the EBRI of which she was President until her death on December 30, 2012, at the age of 103.
What I personally admire about this woman is her tenacity though the great obstacles that she had to face with her family the determination in carrying forward her studies and her approaching life with stubbornness without ever breaking down. She was right considering the aims achieved.
A phrase from her that particularly struck me was this: “Women who changed the world did not need to” show “anything but their intelligence“.