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May 6, 2015 / 17 Iyar, 5775
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Rita Levi-Montalcini, 103, Nobel Prize Winner in Medicine

Rita Levi-Montalcini, a Nobel Prize winning biologist and centenarian who survived Nazi oppression in Italy, passed away in Rome.

The 103 year-old Jewish woman won the esteemed Nobel Prize in Medicine for groundbreaking research unlocking secrets of cells called “nerve growth factor” which have led to developments in fighting cancer, dementia, and developmental malformations.

In 2001, Italy honored Levi-Montalcini by making her a senator for life.

Levi-Montalcini was born in the northern Italian city of Turin on April 22, 1909, to a Jewish family.  As a young woman, her father disapproved of her decision to study medicine and surgery at Turin University.

At age 20 she overcame her father’s objections that women should not study and obtained a degree in medicine and surgery from Turin University in 1936.

Levi-Montalcini credited anatomist Giueseppe Levi – not a relative for her success and for that of her close friends Salvador Luria (also Jewish) and Renato Dulbecco, who are also Nobel Prize winners.

She studied under top anatomist Giuseppe Levi, whom she often credited for her own success and for that of two fellow students and close friends, Salvador Luria and Renato Dulbecco, who also became separate Nobel Prize winners. Levi and Levi-Montalcini were not related.

Levi-Montalcini was fired from her job as a neurobiology research assistant when Italy allied with Nazi Germany in 1938, ultimately setting up a lab in her bedroom where she studied egg embryos she obtained by biking around the countryside to buy the scarce eggs available for sale.

In 1943, Levi-Montalcini and her family went into hiding in Florence.  After the war, she served as a doctor at a refugee camp, then moved for 20 years to the US.

Levi Montalcini’s work led to the discovery by Stanley Cohen of epidermal growth factor, a stimulant for the growth of epithelial cells – the pair won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1986.

About the Author: Malkah Fleisher is a graduate of Cardozo Law School in New York City. She is an editor/staff writer at JewishPress.com and co-hosts a weekly Israeli FM radio show. Malkah lives with her husband and two children on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem.


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