women in STEM

The Jewish Woman Turned Nobel Prize-Winning Neurobiology Pioneer


Since my mother-in-law (z’’l) was diagnosed with ALS a few years ago, I have taken more than a passing interest into the research for this horrible disease. Little did I know that right on my own home turf of the Jewish Women’s Archive, I would find Rita Levi-Montalcini, whose pioneering work on nerve cell growth and distribution won her the Nobel Prize in 1986.

Born in Turin, in northwestern Italy, on April 22, 1909, Levi-Montalcini had begun her research on nerve cells at the University of Turin. Banned from the university in a purge of Jews in 1938, and then forced to hide during the Nazi occupation of Italy, she immigrated to the United States and joined the faculty of Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri in 1946.

There, she worked in a lab with Dr. Stanley Cohen, with whom she shared the Nobel Prize, from 1953 -1959. Their work–and their discovery of the Nerve Growth Factor (NGF)–laid the foundations for research into cancer, Parkinson’s, and ALS.

Rita Levi-Montalcini passed away on December 30, 2012. She had continued to work until shortly before her death. In 2009, as Levi-Montalcini celebrated her 100th birthday, she said, “At 100, I have a mind that is superior, thanks to experience, than when I was 20.”

Read more about Rita Levi-Montalcini here.

This post is the third in a four-part series with the Jewish Women’s Archive, commemorating women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) for Jewish American Heritage Month. Every Monday in May you can look forward to a new post about a Jewish woman who helped to lay the groundwork for women in science today.

Paula Sinclair

Paula Sinclair is the Director of Programs and Partnerships for the Jewish Women’s Archive, the world’s largest collection of stories and voices of Jewish women in North America and beyond, all online and freely accessible at jwa.org. Paula began her career as a banker, became a business journalist, and even ran a youth writing and adventure camp before joining JWA. The biographies she co-wrote for Kveller in honor of Jewish American Heritage Month are adapted from entries in the JWA Encyclopedia of Jewish Women. Follow Paula and JWA on Twitter (@jwaonline ) and on Facebook (facebook.com/JewishWomensArchive).

The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. Comments are moderated, so use your inside voices, keep your hands to yourself, and no, we're not interested in herbal supplements.

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