Emily Millsaps

Women in Science
Rita Levi-Montalcini was an Italian-American neurologist; she did most of
her work at Washington University. She studied mouse tumors implanted in
chicken embryos; the pair isolated a nerve-growth factor, the first of many
cell-growth factors found in animals. In 1948 it was discovered in
Hamburger’s laboratory that a variety of mouse tumor spurred nerve growth
when implanted into chick embryos. Levi-Montalcini and Hamburger traced the
effect to a substance in the tumor that they named nerve-growth factor
(NGF). Levi-Montalcini showed that the tumor caused similar cell growth in
a nerve-tissue culture kept alive in the laboratory, and Cohen, who by then
had joined her at Washington University, was able to isolate the nerve-
growth factor from the tumor. NGF was the first of many cell-growth factors
to be found in the bodies of animals. It plays an important role in the
growth of nerve cells and fibers in the peripheral nervous system. It also
proved to be important when trying to understand cell and organ growth and
how they play a significant role in understanding cancers and diseases such
as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Rita Levi-Montalcini received the Noble
Prize for her discoveries in Physiology or Medicine. In addition to the
Nobel Prize, Levi-Montalcini has received many honors and awards. In 1963
she was the first woman scientist to receive the Max Weinstein Award, given
by the United Cerebral Palsy Association for outstanding contributions in
neurological research. In 1975 Levi-Montalcini became the first woman to be
installed in the Pontifical Scientific Academy. In 1999, the Food and
Agriculture Organization of the United Nations named Rita Levi-Montalcini
one of its first four FAO Ambassadors, to help in its campaign against
world hunger.