Levi-Montalcini attended the University of Turin Medical School having overcome her father's objections to women pursuing professional careers. She graduated from medicine in 1936, before choosing to specialise in neurology and psychology under the supervision of Guiseppe Levi. However, Benito Mussolini's 1938 Manifesto of Race (Manifesto per la Difesa della Razza) led to the barring of academic careers to non-Aryan citizens. Inspired by the work of Professor Viktor Hamburger, Levi-Montalcini continued her research underground, building a small laboratory in the family home to study the development of chick embryos.
After the end of the war, Levi-Montalcini briefly resumed her academic post at the University of Turin before being invited to Washington University by Professor Hamburger. During her research, Levi-Montalcini discovered the role of NGF in the development of the embryonic nervous system, and its role as a signalling molecule. Her research increased the understanding of many conditions including tumours, developmental malformations and dementia.
Levi Montalcini was also a recipient of the American National Medal of Science, elected a foreign member of the Royal Society, appointed goodwill ambassador for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, and was nominated senator for life by the Italian President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi. She also established the Rita Levi-Montalcini Foundation, to support the education of girls and women in Africa.