Italian Nobel laureate Rita Levi-Montalcini dies

Archive photo of  Rita Levi Montalcini in 2009 Levi-Montalcini continued to work into her old age

The Italian Nobel prize-winning neurologist Rita Levi-Montalcini has died at the age of 103.

Dr Levi-Montalcini lived through anti-semitic discrimination under fascism to become one of Italy's top scientists and most respected figures.

She won acclaim for her work on cells, which furthered understanding of a range of conditions, including cancer.

In 1986 she shared the Nobel prize for medicine with biochemist Stanley Cohen for research carried out in the US.

Her niece, Piera Levi-Montalcini, told La Stampa newspaper that she had died peacefully "as if sleeping" after lunch.

Her aunt had continued to carry out several hours of research every day until her death, she said.

Rita Levi-Montalcini was born in 1909 to a wealthy Jewish family in the northern city of Turin, where she studied medicine.

But after she graduated in 1936 the fascist government banned Jews from academic and professional careers, and Dr Levi-Montalcini set up a makeshift laboratory in her bedroom, experimenting on chicken embryos.

"She worked in primitive conditions," Italian astrophysicist Margherita Hack told Italian TV. "She is really someone to be admired."

'Charismatic and tenacious'

Dr Levi-Montalcini's family lived underground in Florence after the Germans invaded Italy in 1943. She later worked as doctor for the allied forces that liberated the city, treating refugees.

Start Quote

At 100, I have a mind that is superior - thanks to experience - than when I was 20”

End Quote Rita Levi-Montalcini, interviewed in 2009

From 1947 she was based for more than 20 years in the US, at Washington University in Saint Louis, Missouri. There she discovered nerve growth factor, which regulates the growth of cells.

She later worked at the National Council of Scientific Research in Rome.

Her research was recognised to have advanced the understanding of conditions including tumours, malformations and senile dementia.

In 2001 she was nominated to the Italian upper house of parliament as a senator for life, an honour bestowed on some of Italy's most distinguished public figures.

She was an ambassador for the Rome-based UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, and founded the Levi-Montalcini Foundation, which carries out charity work in Africa.

Dr Levi-Montalcini never married, saying her life had been "enriched by excellent human relations, work and interests".

In a 2009 interview she said: "At 100, I have a mind that is superior - thanks to experience - than when I was 20."

Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti praised Dr Levi-Montalcini's "charismatic and tenacious" character and her lifelong battle to "defend the battles in which she believed".

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