Rita Levi Montalcini was born on April 22nd 1909 in Turin, Italy, with her twin sister Paola. She received her M.D. from the Institute of Human Anatomy of the University of Turin under the direction of Prof. Giuseppe Levi. Since her first years at the university she dedicated herself to the study of the nervous system.
In 1938, the proclamation of racial laws prevented her from continuing her studies at the university. However, she continued her research on the mechanisms of differentiation of the nervous system first in Belgium and then again back in Turin in 1940, in a small laboratory set up privately. During the German occupation, she and her family spent a period in Florence hiding from the Nazi army but with constant contact with the leaders of the Action Party (Partito d´Azione).
Invited by Professor Viktor Hamburger in 1947, she moved to Washington University in St Louis (Missouri, USA) to continue the research started in Turin.
In 1952, she went to Brazil to continue her in vitro culture experiments at the University of Rio de Janeiro, Institute of Biophysics, as a guest of the director Professor Carlo Chagas. The experiments performed in Brazil in December 1952, allowed for the identification of the growth factor of neuronal cells (Nerve Growth Factor, also known as the acronym NGF). Upon her return in St Louis in the winter of 1953, a young biochemist Stanley Cohen joined her and together, using the in vitro system that Rita Levi Montalcini designed, performed the first biochemical characterization of this growth factor.
For this discovery Rita Levi-Montalcini and Stanley Cohen received the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1986.
In 1969 she settled permanently in Italy to assume the direction of the Institute of Cell Biology at the CNR in Rome. From 1993 to 1998, she acted as the director of the Institute of the Italian Encyclopedia.
Rita Levi-Montalcini is a member of the most prestigious scientific academies, such as l´Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, l´Accademia Pontificia, l´Accademia delle Scienze, the National Academy of Sciences of the USA and the Royal Society.
She is President of the Rita Levi-Montalcini Foundation, which provides scholarships and educational support for African women.
In 2001 she was appointed Senator for life of the Italian Republic.
In 2002 she founded and presided the European Brain Research Institute (EBRI), a position he held until her death at the age of 103 on December 30, 2012.