Giorgia Penesso WordHistory 1 “It was a very patriarchal society, and I simplyresented, from early childhood, that women were reared in such a way thateverything was decided by the man,” proclaimed Italian neurobiologist, RitaLevi-Montalcini.
Amongst the thousands of women disguised in the midst of maleleaders and fighters, Montalcini was able to be one of those woman in history,but more importantly shaped the foundation of which woman are thought upontoday. Rita Levi- Montalcini made several accomplishments throughout her spanof life of 103 years. From winning the Nobel peace price to discovering theidea of the nerve growth factor, her preciseness and perseverance has encouragedwomen today to remember her in a way that she would want to be remembered by.
Rita Levi-Montalcini was born on April 22nd,in 1909 during the period of World War II, into a wealthy Jewish family thatconsisted of her mother and father, as well as her two sisters. Her father, wasobviously content with the idea of a patriarchal society, so he enforced hisopinion; that a professional career would interfere with the important role ofa wife and mother, so they should not attempt to attend a university and pursuetheir permanent studies. Despite her father’s beliefs, Montalcini was stubbornand was not going to give up just yet. Even so, when her personal governessdied of cancer, she knew that she had to become a doctor.
Soon enough, shereceived her father’s reluctant permission, and began to start her career as ascientist. At age 21, Rita enrolled in a medical school in Turin, andwas instantly inspired by teacher Giuseppe Levi. She then became an intern atthe institute of Anatomy, and in due time became an expert with histology,especially with the process of staining nerve cells.
Time passed, andLevi-Montalcini was approached with a question by Giuseppe Levi, and one thathe was not even sure of the answer to. He specifically asked her to explain theconvolutions of the human brain. Knowing that this was an impractical projectto give to a student, Levi-Montalcini abandoned the task, and with herteacher’s consent started to explore chicken embryos. A few years later she hadnpo choice but to stop her work again, when Italian leader Mussolini declaredhis dictatorship in 1925, and Italy soon adapted to anti-Semitism. By 1939Montalcini retreated from the university. Not much later, she was invited to study at aneurological institute in Belgium. but was faced with an obstacle; her family.
Worried for them, Montalcini decided to return to Turin, where Mussolini andHitler had just forged their alliance. Not wasting any time, she promptlyassembled her own laboratory in her bedroom. As said to be believed, it wasduring this time of bombs and hiding in the basement that Levi created thebasis of her further explorations of nerve growth factor. In 1942 her and herfamily were forced to leave Turin, and hide in order to survive the war. Herpersistence came through once again, as even though there was a war going onthat did not stop her from her studies. Throughout this process, there came anotherobstacle; biologist Viktor Hamburger. Viktor developed conclusions on anexperiment performed also with chicken embryos, but sure enough Montalcinidisagreed with him. She believed that nerve differentiation did take placedespite the removal of the limb, but the cells still died because they did nothave an assisting factor.
Later on a paper that Montalcini wrote was published in aBelgium article that was read by Viktor Hamburger, who eventually invited herto St. Louis, in 1946, as he wanted to study with her cell differentiation. Shethen remained there until 1961 studying with the the biologist, until shebecame a professor in Washington. Not surprisingly, Levi-Montalcini soon tookon a new experiment that even further extended her knowledge with nerve cells.She took tissue slides of chicken embryo spinal cords, that were in differentdeveloping stages.
When she looked at the spinal’s final positions, sheobserved the missing parts of some of them. With this, she was determined tofind the missing factor that would complete her observations. A student of Viktor Hamburger had recently discovered amouse tumor line called Sarcoma 180, that caused the cells to rapidly grow. So,Levi-Montalcini responded to her intuition and started to collaborate withStanley Cohen, a biochemist. They then both added snake venom to theirexperiment, and realized that the venom itself resorted in the biologicalactivity, and it also contained the factor that they were looking for. This ledto the realization that nerve growth factor is found in salivary glands inmice. Both scientists were able to chart the role of the factor, and make apoint that it contributed to the differentiation of cells. Eventually in 1986,Levi-Montalcini and Stanley Cohen shared the Nobel Peace Prize for theirachievement and supporting the idea of nerve growth factor.
This prize not onlyindicated how great of a female influence Rita Levi-Montalcini was to us, butto her whole country. During her time period of the war the society she livedin was patriarchal, and in fact under Mussolini control, very sexist. Women werjust thought of as wives and mothers, not great scientists who taught us thatwe 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. Sheimpacted the fields of study of women and wanted to change the patriarchalviews of her society. Even though Mussolini set forward a law that women couldno longer be enrolled in universities, she didn’t give up and started her ownlab in her bedroom which does make her a warrior. She is a leader because shewon the noble peace prize, which was hard even more because of the conditionsshe was living under during Mussolini time and patriarchal/sexist views, evenapplied by her father.
Succeeding her famous actions, Levi-Montalcini died onDecember 30th, in 2012, of natural causes, as she was not persecutedfor her memorable actions. Althoughmany women in history are not idolized or highlighted throughout history, thereare several women leaders that have helped our societies develop and nourishuntil now. One of these women being Rita Levi-Montalcini. Rita being ascientist in a poor time period in a poor geographic standpoint, managed to notonly give women a greater role in their society, but was a key aspect inscience and neurology.