Giorgia Penesso                                                                                              Word
History 1



            “It was a very patriarchal society, and I simply
resented, from early childhood, that women were reared in such a way that
everything was decided by the man,” proclaimed Italian neurobiologist, Rita
Levi-Montalcini. Amongst the thousands of women disguised in the midst of male
leaders and fighters, Montalcini was able to be one of those woman in history,
but more importantly shaped the foundation of which woman are thought upon
today. Rita Levi- Montalcini made several accomplishments throughout her span
of life of 103 years. From winning the Nobel peace price to discovering the
idea of the nerve growth factor, her preciseness and perseverance has encouraged
women today to remember her in a way that she would want to be remembered by.

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            Rita Levi-Montalcini was born on April 22nd,
in 1909 during the period of World War II, into a wealthy Jewish family that
consisted of her mother and father, as well as her two sisters. Her father, was
obviously content with the idea of a patriarchal society, so he enforced his
opinion; that a professional career would interfere with the important role of
a wife and mother, so they should not attempt to attend a university and pursue
their permanent studies. Despite her father’s beliefs, Montalcini was stubborn
and was not going to give up just yet. Even so, when her personal governess
died of cancer, she knew that she had to become a doctor. Soon enough, she
received her father’s reluctant permission, and began to start her career as a

            At age 21, Rita enrolled in a medical school in Turin, and
was instantly inspired by teacher Giuseppe Levi. She then became an intern at
the institute of Anatomy, and in due time became an expert with histology,
especially with the process of staining nerve cells. Time passed, and
Levi-Montalcini was approached with a question by Giuseppe Levi, and one that
he was not even sure of the answer to. He specifically asked her to explain the
convolutions of the human brain. Knowing that this was an impractical project
to give to a student, Levi-Montalcini abandoned the task, and with her
teacher’s consent started to explore chicken embryos. A few years later she had
npo choice but to stop her work again, when Italian leader Mussolini declared
his dictatorship in 1925, and Italy soon adapted to anti-Semitism. By 1939
Montalcini retreated from the university.

            Not much later, she was invited to study at a
neurological institute in Belgium. but was faced with an obstacle; her family.
Worried for them, Montalcini decided to return to Turin, where Mussolini and
Hitler had just forged their alliance. Not wasting any time, she promptly
assembled her own laboratory in her bedroom. As said to be believed, it was
during this time of bombs and hiding in the basement that Levi created the
basis of her further explorations of nerve growth factor. In 1942 her and her
family were forced to leave Turin, and hide in order to survive the war. Her
persistence came through once again, as even though there was a war going on
that did not stop her from her studies. Throughout this process, there came another
obstacle; biologist Viktor Hamburger. Viktor developed conclusions on an
experiment performed also with chicken embryos, but sure enough Montalcini
disagreed with him. She believed that nerve differentiation did take place
despite the removal of the limb, but the cells still died because they did not
have an assisting factor.

            Later on a paper that Montalcini wrote was published in a
Belgium article that was read by Viktor Hamburger, who eventually invited her
to St. Louis, in 1946, as he wanted to study with her cell differentiation. She
then remained there until 1961 studying with the the biologist, until she
became a professor in Washington. Not surprisingly, Levi-Montalcini soon took
on a new experiment that even further extended her knowledge with nerve cells.
She took tissue slides of chicken embryo spinal cords, that were in different
developing stages. When she looked at the spinal’s final positions, she
observed the missing parts of some of them. With this, she was determined to
find the missing factor that would complete her observations.

            A student of Viktor Hamburger had recently discovered a
mouse tumor line called Sarcoma 180, that caused the cells to rapidly grow. So,
Levi-Montalcini responded to her intuition and started to collaborate with
Stanley Cohen, a biochemist. They then both added snake venom to their
experiment, and realized that the venom itself resorted in the biological
activity, and it also contained the factor that they were looking for. This led
to the realization that nerve growth factor is found in salivary glands in
mice. Both scientists were able to chart the role of the factor, and make a
point that it contributed to the differentiation of cells.

Eventually in 1986,
Levi-Montalcini and Stanley Cohen shared the Nobel Peace Prize for their
achievement and supporting the idea of nerve growth factor. This prize not only
indicated how great of a female influence Rita Levi-Montalcini was to us, but
to her whole country. During her time period of the war the society she lived
in was patriarchal, and in fact under Mussolini control, very sexist. Women wer
just thought of as wives and mothers, not great scientists who taught us that
we come from one cell that divides and differs into a million others.
Montalcini was not only a leader, a warrior, a hero, but she was all three. She
impacted the fields of study of women and wanted to change the patriarchal
views of her society. Even though Mussolini set forward a law that women could
no longer be enrolled in universities, she didn’t give up and started her own
lab in her bedroom which does make her a warrior. She is a leader because she
won the noble peace prize, which was hard even more because of the conditions
she was living under during Mussolini time and patriarchal/sexist views, even
applied by her father. Succeeding her famous actions, Levi-Montalcini died on
December 30th, in 2012, of natural causes, as she was not persecuted
for her memorable actions.

many women in history are not idolized or highlighted throughout history, there
are several women leaders that have helped our societies develop and nourish
until now. One of these women being Rita Levi-Montalcini. Rita being a
scientist in a poor time period in a poor geographic standpoint, managed to not
only give women a greater role in their society, but was a key aspect in
science and neurology. 


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