Born in Italy, Levi-Montalcini’s strict father decreed his daughters could not go to college: that would interfere with being wives and mothers. In response, she vowed never to marry or have children (and never did). And when her governess got cancer, she defied her father and went to school: she wanted to become a doctor and work toward curing cancer, and got her medical degree in 1936. She couldn’t continue her studies of her specialty (neurology), though: bowing to the Nazis, Italian dictator Mussolini banned Jews from the professions, so she did lab experiments in her bedroom. Once the U.S. liberated Florence, where the family had fled, she practiced medicine at refugee camps.
In 1947, one of her research papers was noticed by an American doctor, who invited her to spend one semester at Washington University working with him; she stayed 30 years, and her work helped explain the workings of cell differentiation — how a single cell could develop into a complex human being. She and biochemist Stanley Cohen isolated Nerve Growth Factor (NGF, and related body chemicals including EGF — Epidermal Growth Factor), which was so ground-breaking that Levi-Montalcini and Cohen were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1986. “The discovery of NGF and EGF has opened new fields of widespread importance to basic science,” the Nobel Foundation said at the time. “As a direct consequence we may increase our understanding of many disease states such as developmental malformations, degenerative changes in senile dementia, delayed wound healing and tumour diseases. The characterization of these growth factors is therefore expected, in the near future, to result in the development of new therapeutic agents and improved treatment in various clinical diseases.” Levi-Montalcini founded the Institute of Cell Biology of the Italian National Research Council in Rome, and moved back to Italy in 1977 to work there full time, and to establish the European Brain Research Institute. Despite being Jewish, she was the first woman admitted to the Roman Catholic Church’s Pontifical Academy of Sciences, and was appointed Italian Senator for life. Levi-Montalcini never fully retired: “At 100,” she said, “I have a mind that is superior — thanks to experience — than when I was 20.” She died at her home in Italy on December 30, at 103.