After losing her position in her university’s anatomy department in 1938, Rita Levi-Montalcini set up a laboratory in her bedroom and studied the growth of nerve fibers in chicken embryos. This work led to her discovery of nerve growth factor, for which she was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1986.

Rita Levi-Montalcini

Levi-Montalcini lost her assistant position in the anatomy department after a 1938 law barring Jews from university positions was passed. During World War II she set up a laboratory in her bedroom and studied the growth of nerve fibers in chicken embryos, which laid the groundwork for much of her later research. She described this experience decades later in the science documentary film Death by Design/The Life and Times of Life and Times (1997). The film also features her fraternal twin sister Paola, who became a respected artist best known for her aluminum sculptures designed to bring light to the rooms due to the reflective white surface.

When the Germans invaded Italy in September 1943, her family fled south to Florence, where … Continue Reading (10 minute read)

10 thoughts on “After losing her position in her university’s anatomy department in 1938, Rita Levi-Montalcini set up a laboratory in her bedroom and studied the growth of nerve fibers in chicken embryos. This work led to her discovery of nerve growth factor, for which she was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1986.”

  1. porkly1

    I met her in 1982. She was a small silver haired women with a lot of large jewelry. Very nice, and very serious about her work.

  2. _pupil_

    “Screw you guys, I’m gonna make my own laboratory full of chicks!”

  3. Papancasudani

    An amazing person. She lived until 103 and was sharp as a tack. She was a member of Italian parliament later in life. She reportedly took eye drops of nerve growth factor which may be why she was so mentally intact at such an advanced age.

  4. OpenShut

    You know what really blows my mind is that recently we had a similar story with another scientist, [Katalin Karikó, whose work on mRNA was used in some of our COVID vaccines. When she was an academic everyone doubted the research as it caused harm to rats preventing it from being used on human trials](https://www.wired.co.uk/article/mrna-coronavirus-vaccine-pfizer-biontech). She stuck with mRNA but as a results was demoted, ended up earning less then the technicians she worked with. She felt academia after 25 years and was wildly successful in industry. Her research is now earmarked for a Nobel Price.

  5. boosnie

    The title laks 3 important words:

    – Jewish

    – Racial Laws

  6. Confident_Frogfish

    This is so impressive, I would 100% give up at that point. Just imagine all the amazing scientists that gave up due to racist or discriminatory rules and how much they could have contributed.

  7. Mythosaurus

    One more example of racism and fascism delaying scientific discoveries that would benefit all of mankind.

  8. CantTakeMeSeriously

    “Come on up to my bedroom…I’ll show you my fresh batch of chicken embryos…”

  9. buzzlite

    OG Chicken Lady. The Kids in the Hall ain’t got nothing on her.

  10. cazzipropri

    Crucial piece of information: he lost her position because of the fascist/nazi purge of the Jews.

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