Viktor Hamburger and Rita Levi-Montalcini: the path to the discovery of nerve growth factor

Annu Rev Neurosci. 2001:24:551-600. doi: 10.1146/annurev.neuro.24.1.551.


The announcement in October 1986 that the Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine was to be awarded to Rita Levi-Montalcini and Stanley Cohen for the discoveries of NGF and EGF, respectively, caused many to wonder why Viktor Hamburger (in whose laboratory the initial work was done) had not been included in the award. Now that the dust has settled, the time seems opportune to reconsider the antecedent studies on the relation of the developing nervous system to the peripheral structures it innervates. The studies undertaken primarily to investigate this issue culminated in the late 1950s in the discovery that certain tissues produce a nerve growth-promoting factor that is essential for the survival and maintenance of spinal (sensory) ganglion cells and sympathetic neurons. In this review, the many contributions that Viktor and Rita made to this problem, both independently and jointly, are reexamined by considering chronologically each of the relevant research publications together with some of the retrospective memoirs they have published in the years since the discovery of NGF was first reported.

Publication types

  • Biography
  • Historical Article

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Epidermal Growth Factor / history*
  • Epidermal Growth Factor / physiology
  • Germany
  • History, 20th Century
  • Humans
  • Nerve Growth Factor / history*
  • Nerve Growth Factor / physiology
  • Nervous System Physiological Phenomena*
  • Nobel Prize
  • Physiology / history
  • United States


  • Epidermal Growth Factor
  • Nerve Growth Factor

Personal name as subject

  • V Hamburger
  • R Levi-Montalcini