Jewish Nobel Laureate Turns 100

Rita Levi-Montalcini, the Jewish-Italian neurologist who received the 1986 Nobel Prize for discovering Nerve Growth Factor (NGF), is turning 100.

Malkah Fleisher , | updated: 8:44 AM

Rita Levi-Montalcini
Rita Levi-Montalcini

Rita Levi-Montalcini, the Jewish-Italian neurologist who received the 1986 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for discovering Nerve Growth Factor (NGF), is celebrating her 100th birthday today.

Born on April 22, 1909 to Sephardic Jewish parents in Turin, Italy, Levi-Montalcini did most of her early research not in the Turin Medical School at which she enrolled, but in her bedroom laboratory, being forced out of university life by anti-Jewish laws imposed by dictator Benito Mussolini in the 1930s.

Despite having to flee to southern Italy during a portion of World War II, Levi-Montalcini continued research on the growth of nerve fibers in chicken embryos, research which became the basis of much of her life's work.

Subsequently moving to the United States to conduct more research after the war,  Levi-Montalcini, together with American colleague Stanley Cohen, discovered Nerve Growth Factor.  Nerve Growth Factor, or NGF, is one of the most important molecules in the nervous system, controlling the development of the nervous system in the embryo and the maintenance of nervous tissue and neural transmission in the adult.

In 1986, the pair were awarded the Nobel Prize, making Levi-Montalcini the fourth Italian Jew to win the esteemed award, after Emilio Segrè (discoverer of antiprotons), Salvador Luria (a university colleague and friend who won the prize for research on phages) and Franco Modigliani (Nobel Prize in Economics).

At a recent celebration of her impending centenarian status, Levi-Montalcini told party goers at her namesake European Brain Research Institute (EBRI)  that she believes her mind to be superior today than it was when she was 20.  She also urged celebrants not to fear difficulties, through which she says come the best achievements.

Despite her age, Levi-Montalcini works daily.  In the morning, she visits EBRI on the outskirts of Rome.  Afterward, she works at a science-based educational foundation for African women she established in 1992.  She has published 21 books, and on August 1, 2001 was appointed as Senator for Life by the President of the Italian Republic, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi.