Rita Levi-Montalcini Essay Example

  • Category: Science, Scientist,
  • Words: 601 Pages: 3
  • Published: 04 May 2021
  • Copied: 131

It’s hard performing groundbreaking experiments that will eventually lead to treatments for diseases such as Alzheimer’s and cancer. Now try doing it in a makeshift lab in your bedroom while you're hiding from the Nazis! Rita Levi-Montalcini spent much of the Second World War avoiding Hitler’s army and still came up with Nobel-Prize-winning science.

Rita was born in Turin, Italy, in 1909. As a young adult, Rita was desperate to study medicine after a family friend had died of stomach cancer. This was a massive turning point for Rita, since she and this family friend were close. Her father reluctantly agreed, and Rita earned a degree in medicine and surgery in 1936. She stayed at the university to work, and she developed a technique for staining nerve cells with silver so they could be seen under a microscope (citation). In 1938, the fascist dictator Benito Mussolini decreed that people with Jewish heritage could no longer work in universities or many professions, including medicine (citation). Rita’s family was Jewish. Unable to work at the university, she built a laboratory in her bedroom, fashioning instruments out of sewing needles and other things she could find. 

Rita had been intrigued by an article written in 1934 by an American embryologist (a scientist, typically found in a fertility clinic or lab that is involved in reproductive research or fertility assessments) Viktor Hamburger, where he described nerve development in chicken embryos (an unborn or unhatched offspring in the process of development). She used her silver staining technique to recreate and improve her experiments as World War II raged around her. Rita was working as a doctor in a refugee camp when Professor Hamburger saw the papers she’d published about his chicken embryo research. He invited her to visit Washington University in St. Louis in the United States. Rita went to visit Viktor Hamburger for a “short trip” in 1947, and she never left. Her work was so valuable, she became a professor herself.

Professor Hamburger showed Rita a mouse tumor that had spurred nerve growth. Rita was very excited and adapted the experiment so the tumor only got blood from the embryo. She repeated the results with nerve tissue, then began working with a biochemist called Stanley Cohen. They then got to work and isolated a protein that stimulates nerve growth in nearby cells. At first, people didn’t recognize the significance of Rita’s and Stanley’s discovery, but it slowly became clear that it could be used in finding treatments for serious conditions. They ended up sharing the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1986. Keen to ensure research continued, Rita founded the Institute of Cell Biology in 1962, an educational foundation in 1992, and the European Brain Research Institute in 2002 (citation). She died in 2012 at the age of 103. Even at the end of her life, Rita Levi-Montalicini continued her scientific research every day. 

As a feminist in a family with Victorian mores, and as a Jew and free-thinker in Mussolini’s Italy, Rita Levi-Montalcini encountered various forms of oppression many times in her life. Yet the neurobiologist, whose tenacity and preciseness are immediately apparent in her light, steel-blue eyes and elegant black-and-white attire, embraces the forces that shaped her. “If I had not been discriminated against or had not suffered persecution, I would never have received the Nobel Prize,” she declared. Poised on the edge of a couch in her apartment in Rome that she shared with her twin sister, Paola, Levi- Montalcini recalled the long, determined struggle that culminated in joining the small group of women Nobelists in 1986.

In conclusion, Rita wouldn’t have been able to do all this if not for the family friend that had died, or her determination to prove her father wrong, and that women can have great careers and be successful. She had experienced a turning point in her life and was determined to be the best that she could.

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