Italian neurologist Rita Levi-Montalcini – born on this day in 1909 – received the 1986 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine, along with Stanley Cohen, for their discovery that a protein called nerve growth factor plays a key role in the development of the nervous system. But particularly remarkable is how Levi-Montalcini managed to conduct her research at a time when Mussolini prevented non-Aryan Italian citizens from having academic careers. This impelled Levi-Montalcini to set up a laboratory in her bedroom at her family home in Turin. Following heavy bombing by English and American forces, she left Turin to rebuild her mini-laboratory in a cottage in the country. When the German army invaded Italy, she fled to Florence to work as a doctor for war refugees. After the war, she went to Washington University, St. Louis, USA, and remained there for thirty years. She died in December 2012 aged 103.
Written by Nick Kennedy
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