Dr. Rita Levi-Montalcini, 103; Washington U. professor, Nobel Prize laureate

Dr. Rita Levi-Montalcini

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

Dr. Rita Levi-Montalcini, who survived the anti-Semitism and Nazi invasion of her native Italy, and whose groundbreaking work at Washington University resulted in her being named a co-recipient of  the 1986 Nobel Prize in Medicine, died Sunday, Dec. 30, 2012 at her home in Rome.  She was 103 and continued her work well into her later years.

A native of Italy, Dr. Levi-Montalcini, who never married, was born to a Jewish family in Turin in 1909. She was trained there as a physician and neurologist. She went underground in 1941 to continue her research in Fascist Italy after its Axis Pact with Nazi Germany and in defiance of the totalitarian regime, which adopted anti-Jewish laws to placate Adolf Hitler.  After World War II, she was able to resume a public role.  

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In 1947, she was recruited to be on the faculty at  Washington University School of Medicine by the acclaimed Dr. Viktor Hamburger, who headed the department. She remained on its faculty for 30 years until her retirement in 1977, after which she split her time between St. Louis and Rome where she continued her research.  

In 1951, during her tenure at Washington University, which she described as “the happiest and most productive of my life,” Dr.Levi-Montalcini made a major discovery of what she called the nerve growth factor.  The factor is critical to the development of some parts of the nervous system, which affect blood pressure, gland secretions, heart rate and other  involuntary bodily functions.  The discovery led to increased awareness of many conditions and diseases, including cancer, developmental malformations and senile dementia.

She shared her 1986 Nobel Prize in Medicine with American biochemist and Washington U. colleague, Dr. Stanley Cohen.  Nearly all of their groundbreaking research was carried out at the university.

Dr. Levi-Montalcini received numerous other prestigious prizes and honors and was a frequent guest lecturer in the United States well into her nineties.  She also began a foundation to educate poor women in Africa.

In a story on her passing, JTA noted that tributes poured in from across the Italian spectrum  for one of the most admired and honored women in Rome.  President Giorgio Napolitano described her death as a great loss “for all of humanity.”  He also said she had represented “civic conscience, culture and the spirit of research in our time.”

In recognition of her moral and intellectual authority and deeds, Dr. Levi-Montalcini was named a Senator for Life, one of Italy’s highest honors, in 2001.