Monday, December 31, 2012

Rita Levi-Montalcini, growth factor pioneer

Yesterday, the scientific community lost another of its great people, Rita Levi-Montalcini.

In The Human Body in Health & Disease and Structure & Function of the Body, I wrote this about Levi-Montalcini:
Rita Levi-Montalcini had just finished a medical degree in her native Italy when in 1938 the Fascist government under Mussolini barred all “non-Aryans” from working in academic and professional careers. Being Jewish, Levi-Montalcini was forced to move to Belgium to work. But when Belgium was about to be invaded by the Nazis, she decided to return home to Italy and work in secret. Her home laboratory was very crude, but in it she made some important discoveries about how the nervous system develops during embryonic development. After World War II, she was invited to Washington University in St. Louis to work. There, she discovered the existence of nerve growth factor (NGF), for which she later won the 1986 Nobel Prize. Her discovery of a chemical that regulates the growth of new nerves during early brain development has led to many different paths of investigation. For example, by learning more about growth regulators we now know more about how the nervous system develops, as well as other tissues, organs, and systems of the body.
Note that I put in a little plug for my hometown of St. Louis, where we continue to be proud of this remarkable woman and her pioneering work.

As I said in a recent post about the passing of transplant pioneer Joseph Murray, I think the occasional story of a pioneer in the history of human science adds a lot to the A&P course.  Such stories give a human dimension to the pursuit of science and provide the context needed for students to understand how we know what we know.  Levi-Montalcini's story gives us the further opportunities to weave into our courses the themes of global collaboration among the scientific community as the role of women in science.

Want to know more?

  • Nobel Scientist Rita Levi-Montalcini Dies in Rome
  • Oldest Nobel winner Rita Levi-Montalcini dies at 103
  • Nobel Lecture by Rita Levi-Montalcini 
    • Media Player at
    • [Full video (in English) of Nobel lecture by Rita Levi-Montalcini in which she fully credits "good luck"; 57 minutes]

  • Rita Levi-Montalcini Interview
    • Adam Smith, Editor-in-Chief of
    • Nobel Interview, November 2008
    • [Video interview with Rita Levi-Montalcini, who talks about her daily work, why she had to make a laboratory in her bedroom to conduct research during World War II (3:06), the benefits of working in isolation (5:03), her post-war move to the United States (6:25), her work with Stanley Cohen and the discovery of nerve growth factor (7:15), the roles of intuition and chance in biological research (15:14), her current research (16:58), her advice to young scientists (17:41), and why this period of her life has been the best so far (28:10).]

  • The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1986 Press Release
    • [Detailed news release that includes some simple diagrams that help illustrate the concepts involved.]
  • In Praise of Imperfection: My Life and Work
    • Rita Levi-Montalcini
    • Sloan Foundation Science Series, October 1989
    • [Her autobiography]

Related textbook content
  • Anatomy & Physiology 8th ed.  p. 409, 1111-1113, A&P Connect: The Nobel Legacy
  • Essentials of Anatomy & Physiology p. 231-232, 241, 610-612  
  • The Human Body in Health and Disease 5th ed. p. 236-237, 644-645, 658 
  • Structure & Function of the Body 14th ed. p. 168-169, 472-473

Photo: Presidenza della Repubblica Italiana

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