Thorp to be inaugural holder of Rita Levi-Montalcini professorship

Nobel Prize winner's ‘legacy sets a high bar for us all’

H. Holden Thorp, PhD, provost and executive vice chancellor for academic affairs at Washington University in St. Louis, will be named the inaugural holder of the Rita Levi-Montalcini Distinguished University Professorship during a ceremony next month, announced Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton.


The installation ceremony will be held at 4:30 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 14, in Knight Hall’s Emerson Auditorium. The ceremony, including Thorp’s installation address, “Back to the Future: Accomplishment and Aspiration at Washington University,” is open to the university community.

Thorp, who holds academic appointments in both the Department of Chemistry in Arts & Sciences and in the School of Medicine, came to Washington University in July 2013 from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC), where he had served as chancellor since 2008.

Rita Levi-Montalcini, PhD, was a Nobel Prize-winning neurobiologist who performed the majority of her research at Washington University from 1947-1977. She died in Rome in 2013 at age 103.

Levi-Montalcini discovered nerve growth factor, a cellular “factor” that the body uses to direct the growth of nerve networks. In 1986, she shared the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine with biochemist Stanley Cohen, PhD, also of Washington University, who helped her identify the factor. Hundreds of growth factors are now known to exist and they affect almost all facets of biology.

“Holden Thorp is a distinguished scientist and academic leader, and I am thrilled that he will be the holder of this new professorship named for one of Washington University’s most honored and revered scientists,” Wrighton said. “Holden continues a rich tradition at Washington University of accomplished researchers who have gone on to careers as visionary leaders.”

“I’m excited and honored to be associated with Rita Levi-Montalcini and all she has meant to science and to Wash U,” Thorp said. “Her legacy sets a high bar for us all.

“During the last year, I have learned so much about the extraordinary history of Washington University and had the opportunity to talk with so many of our outstanding faculty, staff and students. It has been an inspirational journey in every respect. Along the way, I’ve heard about many of our accomplishments, but also new ideas for the future and even higher aspirations.

“It is an honor and a huge amount of fun to be here to help put the goals and dreams of our community into action,” Thorp said. “I can’t thank Mark Wrighton and the Board of Trustees enough for bringing me here to be part of it all. Washington University is a place of fierce determination combined with a love of its people and city.”

Nationally known higher education leader

A North Carolina native, Thorp spent three decades at UNC, starting as an undergraduate student. He earned a bachelor of science degree in chemistry with honors from UNC in 1986. He earned a doctorate in chemistry in 1989 at the California Institute of Technology and did postdoctoral work at Yale University.

After teaching a year at North Carolina State University, he returned to UNC to teach chemistry in 1993. He became chair of the chemistry department in 2005 and dean of the College of Arts & Sciences in 2007 before being named chancellor in 2008.

A nationally known higher education leader, Thorp was among a dozen college presidents and higher education leaders invited to the White House in 2011 to discuss with President Barack Obama how campuses can become more affordable while producing more graduates.

Thorp serves on the National Security Higher Education Advisory Board, the board of directors of Barnes-Jewish Hospital, and the board of trustees of the National Humanities Center. More recently, he served as chair of a National Research Council (NRC) committee tasked with establishing and promoting a culture of safety in academic laboratory research. The NRC is an arm of the Congressionally chartered National Academy of Sciences.

He recently received the “Campus Leader Who Cares Award,” presented annually by the Campus Safety, Health, and Environmental Management Association for his efforts.

An engine of innovation

Thorp is the co-author of “Engines of Innovation — The Entrepreneurial University in the 21st Century,” a UNC Press book that makes the case for the pivotal role of research universities as agents of societal change.

Thorp, who has published 130 scholarly articles on the electronic properties of DNA and RNA, holds 12 issued U.S. patents. He was awarded a Presidential Young Investigator Award in 1991 by the National Science Foundation.

In 2005, Thorp co-founded Viamet Pharmaceuticals, another biotechnology company, to develop treatments for cancer and other diseases. Viamet has two programs with drugs in Phase II clinical trials.

In 2012, he was selected a charter fellow of the National Academy of Inventors, a nonprofit organization that recognizes investigators who translate their research findings into inventions to benefit society.

Levi-Montalcini’s ‘happiest, most productive years’

In her autobiography, “In Praise of Imperfection: My Life and Work,” Levi-Montalcini described her years at Washington University as “the happiest and most productive years of my life.”

For more on Levi-Montalcini and her Nobel Prize-winning research at WUSTL, visit here.