Italian Nobel prize-winning neurologist Rita Levi-Montalcini has died at the age of 103.
Rita 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 Rita Levi-Montalcini 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 Rita 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.”
Rita 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.
From 1947 Rita Levi-Montalcini 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.
Rita Levi-Montalcini later worked at the National Council of Scientific Research in Rome.
Her research was recognized to have advanced the understanding of conditions including tumors, malformations and senile dementia.
In 2001 Rita Levi-Montalcini was nominated to the Italian upper house of parliament as a senator for life, an honor bestowed on some of Italy’s most distinguished public figures.
She was an ambassador for the Rome-based UN Food and Agriculture Organization, and founded the Levi-Montalcini Foundation, which carries out charity work in Africa.
Rita 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 Rita Levi-Montalcini’s “charismatic and tenacious” character and her lifelong battle to “defend the battles in which she believed”.