Rita Levi-Montalcini, an Italian-Jewish winner of the Nobel Prize in Medicine who conducted underground research in defiance of Italy’s Fascist anti-Semitism and a Nazi invasion, died Dec. 30 at the age of 103.
Rome Mayor Gianni Alemanno, who announced her death in a statement, called it a great loss “for all of humanity.”
Born in Turin, Italy in 1909 to a Jewish family, Levi-Montalcini pursued an interest in medicine over the objections of her father. Later, after Italy’s National Fascist Party passed a series of anti-Semitic laws in 1938 barring her from an official academic career, she created a lab in her bedroom to continue her research. After the Nazi invasion in 1943, she lived underground with her family until the allied liberation.
In 1986, along with colleague Stanley Cohen, Levi-Montalcini received the Nobel Prize in Medicine for her work in discovering nerve growth factor (NGF). Her research was instrumental in helping to advance the understanding of many conditions, including tumors, developmental malformations, and senile dementia. She was the fourth member of Italy’s ancient yet small Jewish community to win the Nobel Prize.