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Rita Levi-Montalcini

BMJ 2013; 346 doi: (Published 11 February 2013) Cite this as: BMJ 2013;346:f804
  1. Ned Stafford, freelance journalist, Hamburg
  1. ns{at}

Nobel prize winner for “discoveries of growth factors”

When the telephone rang, Rita Levi-Montalcini was at home, engrossed in the final pages of Evil Under the Sun, an Agatha Christie mystery novel. She was learning the identity of the murderer and did not want to put the book down. But of course she did, and picked up the telephone for what was probably the most important telephone call of her long life.

Levi-Montalcini was informed that she and Stanley Cohen had been named winners of the 1986 Nobel prize for medicine or physiology “for their discoveries of growth factors.”

“I was very happy about it,” she later said, “but I wanted much more to know the end of the story.”

The Nobel Assembly recognised Levi-Montalcini for years of work she had started in her native Italy during the second world war, studying the growth of the nervous system in chicken embryos. After the war she tenaciously continued her work in the United States, at Washington University in St Louis, where in the early 1950s she concluded that growth was regulated by a nerve growth promoting factor, …

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