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Rita Levi-Montalcini. A long story of a little discovery By Hilary Pomerantz. Family life. Mom- Adele was a shy, famous painter who was a very submissive wife. Paula- Rita’s fraternal twin sister. They both found comfort in one another. Paula the quiet one and Rita the rebellious.

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Rita levi montalcini

Rita Levi-Montalcini

A long story of a little discovery

By Hilary Pomerantz


Family life
Family life

  • Mom- Adele was a shy, famous painter who was a very submissive wife.

  • Paula- Rita’s fraternal twin sister. They both found comfort in one another. Paula the quiet one and Rita the rebellious.

  • Gino- Rita’s older brother, a well known architect, and professor at the university of Turin. In the years of Mussolini's rule he was on the most wanted list

  • Father- Adam was an overbearing father and husband. All decisions in the house were made by him. And his stern face told that they were final.


Sono una libera pensatrice i am a free thinker
Sono una libera pensatrice.I am a free thinker

Religion

  • While frolicking on the playground, Rita recalls being asked “What is your name? What is your father’s profession? What is your religion?” by many little catholic girls as instructed by their parents. When asked this, she turned to her father. Adam Levi made his three year old recite:

  • He gave his daughter the choice at age twenty-one to choose between being Jewish or Catholic. But she had already made up her mind by then. In Rita’s youth, her governess had tried to convert to Catholicism too, and upon learning this, Rita wondered if her Jewish parents could join her in Christian heaven. Her governess answered “Perhaps they’ll only be able to join us when a dove that drinks once a year has dried up the sea.” Rita immediately made up her mind to stay with her parents and become Jewish.


Education
Education

  • Rita went to academic school until 4th grade with her fraternal twin sister. After that her overbearing father insisted she attend finishing school. Against her will, Rita went, and despised every minute of it. It was then that she decided to NEVER MARRY. It was also then that she decided to become a doctor, because of her beloved nurse who died of stomach cancer. But with no courses at her school that dealt with medicine she was forced to ask her dad for a tutor so she would be able to get into a university. Her dad very reluctantly agreed and very soon after died of a heart attack.


University of turin
University of Turin

  • Rita was one of seven girls in her school of 300 boys. This was not a problem to her though, because her only concern was that she prove to all that she was just as smart as any man. She saw the boys as tempters from her learning experience and therefore dressed as “asexual” as possible so as not to attract their attention.


Professor giuseppe levi
Professor Giuseppe Levi

  • Ironically, after leaving her stern, short tempered father, Rita met a man almost if not more overbearing. Professor Levi was famous for his rages but fortunately that same energy was found in his enthusiasm too. He made amazing speeches and lectures filled with emotion and inspiration and mainly about fascism. He was also a very good teacher for three of his students won the Nobel Peace Prize in Physiology.

  • He taught Montalcini how to stain embryonic chick neurons with chrome silver to make the nerve cells stand out in smallest detail. This would come into play a lot later in her life.

  • After graduation Rita stayed and studied with Levi for two more years while trying to decide between whether to practice Neurology and psychiatry through research or clinical practice. This was soon decided for her. . .


The manifesto for the defense of the race
“The manifesto for the Defense of the race”

  • In June 1938, Mussolini issued the “Manifesto per la difesa della razza” This stated that Jews and non Jews could not marry and Jews could not pursue academic or professional careers, study or teach at state schools, and work for state companies or institutions. Rita was forced to practice medicine secretly but the manifesto prevented her from even entering a university campus, so all of her knowledge came from previous experience.


One doesn t lose heart in the face of the first difficulties
“One doesn’t lose heart in the face of the first difficulties…”

  • “…Set up a small laboratory, and take up your interrupted research” lectured a campus friend, and that’s just what she did…

  • Rita constructed a tiny bedroom laboratory and with help from her brother constructed an incubator in which she could grow chicken eggs for her experiments.

  • As Mussolini grew more and more harsh, her family was forced to hide in the country side and Rita’s lab moved to the dining room.


An unexpected visit
An unexpected visit difficulties…”

  • While working in her laboratory, Rita was visited by Levi, her old college professor, who, after being kicked out of his career wanted to become Rita’s assistant. Although he was an asset to her research, their ideas were always opposing and she eventually down played his role in the experimentation.


Hamburger
Hamburger difficulties…”

  • While traveling on a freight train on a summer’s day in 1940 Rita picked up the newspaper and flipped through it idly until she came to an article by Victor Hamburger, who used chick embryos for his experiments with the nervous system. His hypothesis was that tissues, like muscles and sense organs, influence the diversion and differentiation of neurons. Rita decided to reproduce his experiments in her own lab.


Discrimination and good things too
Discrimination and good things too difficulties…”

  • After Rita and Levi’s great discoveries, they wrote many news articles, but because their names were Jewish, Italian journals would not print their work, but Belgian, Swiss, and the United States would.

  • After the Italian overthrow of Mussolini, German troops took over. They began sending Jews to concentration camps, so the Levi-Montalcini family fled in a hurry to Florence. Rita and her twin Paula forged identification papers but made mistakes on the dates of publication so were always in fear of being found out.


And the good things
And the good things difficulties…”

  • A depressed Levi-Montalcini came back to Turin to study again with Levi after the war. But her hopes were lifted when Hamburger wrote her a letter, inviting her to study with him and debate their theories!!

  • Rita went immediately and studed with him at Washington University. There Rita felt at home, and became close friends with Viktor.


The big discovery
The Big Discovery difficulties…”

  • While working in the lab late one night, Rita found that a variety of mouse tumors caused a halo-shaped nerve growth when implanted in chick embryos.

  • Together, Hamburger and Montalcini traced the effect to a substance in the tumor that they named: THE NERVE GROWTH FACTOR.

  • Rita proved that the same effect was formed when the tumor was placed in a nerve tissue culture that she kept alive in her lab.

  • Stanley Cohen, who was hired to work for six years with the pair, isolated the nerve growth factor from the tumor and found it to be the mammalian salivary gland.


Rita levi montalcini


So what s the significance
So what’s the significance? NGF

  • This discovery is linked to the beginning of life itself: how it begins as one single cell and miraculously grows into a “complex organism of many different cells.”

  • In medical science, NGF speeds up the healing of burns and gets rid of the side effects of chemotherapy and radiation therapy.

  • With the other neurophins in NGF’s family of factors, it could prevent diseases like Alzheimer's and Parkinson’s.

  • In the future NGF could be a treatment for cancer and diabetes.


Credit
Credit NGF

  • In 1986 Rita, along with Stanley Cohen won the Nobel Prize for Medicine. This caused a huge controversy because Viktor Hamburger, who played a huge part in Rita’ success, was not included. When interviewed, Rita stated that “Viktor is a very learned person who’s always done excellent work. But he never discovered NGF.”

  • He stated that “on the surface, we get along well. I resent very much of what she did to me. She never had great respect for my science.”

  • Rita was very hurt in turn when the 91 year old, Hamburger did not make time to have dinner with her when she visited in ’91.


Life after the discovery
Life after the discovery NGF

  • Rita spent many years lecturing, cooking, spending time with her family, and even published a book titled In Praise of Imperfection. She kept to her promise of never marring, but grew into a beautiful body which helped promote her feminist cause and discovery.


The end
THE END NGF

  • “Levi-Montalcini, Rita." Encyclopedia Britannica. 2003. Encyclopedia Britannica Online. 17 Nov, 2003. http://search.eb.com/eb/article?eu=49111.

  • “Rita Levi-Montalcini-Autobiography.” Les Prix Nobel. 1986. Nobel e-Museum. 17 Nov, 2003. http://www.nobel.se/medicine/laureates/1986/levi-montalcini-autobio.html

  • ) McGrayne, Sharon Bertsch. Nobel Prize Women in Science: Their lives, struggles, and momentous discoveries. Secaucus, NJ: Carol, 1992. 201-224.