Dr. Rita Levi-Montalcini lost her job as an assistant in the anatomy department at the University of Turin after Mussolini passed a law in 1938 barring people of Jewish heritage from working at universities or in medicine. But she wasn’t going to let that get in the way of her research.
Setting up a laboratory in her bedroom, she continued to work on studying the development of chicken embryos using eggs from local farmers and instruments she modified herself. After heavy bombing in Turin forced her family to flee to Florence, she again set up a small lab to continue her research. Returning to Turin after the war she returned to her academic position at the University of Turin and two years later was invited to the U.S. to work with noted embryologist Dr. Viktor Hamburger, the man who had inspired her earlier research, to repeat those early experiments.
Continuing on her work, she began transferring pieces of tumors from mice to chick embryos and observed an extremely rapid growth of nerve cells growing like a halo around the tumor cells. What she was able to determine was that the tumor itself was releasing a substance that was stimulating the growth of the nerves. Isolating this nerve growth factor provided a deeper understanding of medical problems like deformities, tumor diseases, delayed wound healing, and senile dementia.
Intending to spend about a year the United States, her work was going so well that she stayed on in St. Louis for many years, being offered an associate professor position in 1956, promoted to full professor two years later, and holding that position until her retirement in 1977.
After a few years in the U.S., Levi-Montalcini returned to Italy part time to develop a research unit in Rome so she could split her time between the United States and her home country. After decades of research spent on understanding the growth and development of the embryo, Dr. Levi-Montalcini and her colleague Dr. Stanley Cohen were awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1986 for their discoveries of growth factors.
Written by Angela Goad