Former professor, Nobel laureate posthumously inducted into St. Louis Walk of Fame

| Senior News Editor

Rita Levi-Montalcini, a Nobel laureate and former Washington University biology professor, was posthumously inducted into the St. Louis Walk of Fame Thursday.

The ceremony, presided over by Joe Edwards—founder of the St. Louis Walk of Fame and owner of numerous Delmar Loop businesses—featured remarks from the current Rita Levi-Montalcini Distinguished University Professor, Provost Holden Thorp.

Rita Levi-Montalcini working in her lab. Levi-Montalcini received her posthumous star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame on ThursdayCourtesy of Public Affairs

Rita Levi-Montalcini working in her lab.

Levi-Montalcini’s star will be placed on the sidewalk at 6136 Delmar Blvd., near the Regional Arts Commission in The Loop.

The St. Louis Walk of Fame is “a nonprofit organization founded in 1988 to provide a showcase for the cultural heritage of St. Louis and to advance the knowledge, awareness and appreciation of great St. Louisans and their accomplishments,” according to the organization’s website. Approximately 30 inductees either studied, taught or conducted research at Washington University. Writer and professor Gerald Early was the most recent University-affiliated inductee, inducted in April 2013.

Levi-Montalcini taught at Washington University for three decades and won the 1986 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine jointly with biochemist Stanley Cohen, who worked at the University in the 1950s. The former neurobiologist discovered nerve growth factor, a cellular “factor” that the body uses to direct the growth of nerve networks. Hundreds of growth factors are now known to exist and they affect almost all facets of biology.

A native of Italy, Levi-Montalcini was a fellow of the Academy of Arts and Sciences and received the National Medal of Science in 1987, among other honors. Her work on chicken embryos was recognized by Viktor Hamburger, a professor within the University’s department of biology (formerly zoology) who later invited her to St. Louis to continue her work. Thorp believes that Levi-Montalcini’s use of fertilized chicken eggs to conduct research is demonstrative of the University’s strong reputation for faculty work in basic sciences.

“We have a great program in developmental biology. And now, we have a whole department in the medical school there. But I think the other thing that’s great about Rita is that she did all of her work on the Danforth Campus,” Thorp said. “She’s somebody who made an extraordinary breakthrough in medicine, but she did it by studying basic biology. And I think that’s something that Wash. U. has always been known for, and I think she’s a symbol of that in many ways.”

Levi-Montalcini continued her early work in Italy despite Benito Mussolini’s manifesto preventing non-Aryan Italians from pursuing professional or academic careers. After setting up a makeshift laboratory in her bedroom, she continued to author and co-author papers during World War II. Her perseverance, Thorp said, amplifies the significance of her accomplishments.

“The honor of her being in the St. Louis Walk of Fame makes all the sense in the world,” Thorp said. “Her accomplishments stand on their own. The science that she did is groundbreaking and has changed our views on developmental biology. The fact that she not only did it as a woman in science when there weren’t many women in science and also that she did science when she was a Jew in Italy…she just overcame so many different things over the course of her life. That is an inspiration to everybody.”

Chancellor Wrighton acknowledged the significance of Levi-Montalcini’s contributions to science in a statement to Student Life, citing her Nobel Prize as an example.

“Rita Levi-Montalcini is a revered figure in the history of Washington University and only one of two women who were on our faculty to win the Nobel Prize. The other is Gerty Cori. It is very fitting that the public at large be able to know that Rita Levi-Montalcini was one of our greatest faculty members and a great contributor the academic excellence of the St. Louis community,” Wrighton wrote.