Born in Turin to a Sephardic Jewish family, Rita Levi-Montalcini decided early on that she wanted to go to medical school. She overcame her father's opposition, which was based on a traditional view of a woman's role, and graduated from the Turin Medical School in 1936 — just in time to be barred from her professional work by the Mussolini government.
Undaunted, she set up a laboratory in her home and in 1943 she fled, with her family, to Florence, where she set up a second laboratory. She returned to Turin in 1945 and was invited to work at the Washington University in St Louis, where she was made a full Professor in 1958. She returned to work in Rome in 1961. Rita Levi-Montalcini and her colleague Stanley Cohen received the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1986 for their work on nerve growth factor. Although now blind, she continues to be academically active and to publish new work.
The following video from Nobelprize.org contains a compelling interview (in English) with Rita Levi-Montalcini.
In 2009, she told the Times that she had never married because she had not wanted to be "dominated" in the way that her mother was (although she adored her father). In the same interview, she put her longevity down to getting up at 5am, working hard to keep her brain active and eating only one meal per day, at lunchtime.
Today, the internet is celebrating Rita Levi-Montalcini’s big day. President Napolitano has released the following statement: “On the occasion of the birthday of Life Senator Rita Levi-Montalcini I should like to offer, in the name of all Italians, my warmest good wishes to an inspiring woman and distinguished person, in recognition of her always deep, meticulous and exemplary commitment to science, its institutions and to her country.”