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Albert Szent-Györgyi

Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1937 for his discoveries in connection with the biological combustion processes, with special reference to vitamin C and the catalysis of fumaric acid.

Department of Biochemistry Rockefeller Fellow (1927-1930, PhD awarded 1927).

Albert von Szent-Györgyi de Nagyrápolt was born in Budapest in 1893 into a family of scientists and musicians, although he described his father as being interested only in farming. His mother had auditioned for Gustav Mahler no less, when he was conductor at the Budapest Opera. He opined that her singing voice was not good enough and advised her to marry instead. Albert himself was good at the piano, while his brother Pál played the violin so well that he became a professional musician. In 1911 Albert entered Semmelweis University, the first medical school in Hungary, but in 1914 his career was interrupted by conscription as an army medic. Although he was decorated for valour, he became increasingly disgusted by both the army and the war and after three years shot himself in the arm; a risky ploy in more ways than one, but which worked in that he was able to return to Budapest and complete his MD in 1917 whilst the wound healed.

After the war he worked in a number of European laboratories, his efforts on cellular metabolism bringing him to the attention of Frederick Gowland Hopkins who offered him a Rockefeller Fellowship. He received a PhD from Fitzwilliam House in 1927 for isolating an anti-oxidant from adrenal glands. Mistakenly believing the compound to be a sugar, in the paper he submitted to the Biochemical Journal he called it 'Ignose'. Arthur Harden, the rather humourless editor, reprimanded him whereupon Szent-Györgyi suggested 'Godnose' eliciting a similar response. They eventually agreed on 'hexuronic acid'.

Szent-Györgyi then spent a year at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota making larger amounts of hexuronic acid for analysis before briefly returning to Cambridge under another Rockefeller grant. Szent-Györgyi then moved, in 1930, to the chair of Medical Chemistry at the University of Szeged. 

In a bizarre episode a young Hungarian American, Joseph Svirbely, turned up in Szent-Györgyi's laboratory. Svirbely had worked in Pittsburg under Charles King who was also trying to isolate vitamin C. Together, Svirbely and Szent-Györgyi found that 'hexuronic acid' was actually vitamin C (the L-enantiomer of ascorbic acid), noted its anti-scorbutic activity, and made enough to send a sample to Norman Haworth at the University of Birmingham. He was the great carbohydrate chemist of Haworth projection fame and his determination of the structure of vitamin C contributed to his receiving the 1937 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. When Szent-Györgyi and Svirbely relayed their findings to King he promptly published the critical result in Science. Szent-Györgyi went on to identify fumaric acid and other molecules in what would become known as the Krebs cycle and eventually emerged with the 1937 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. King's work received no such acknowledgement and the whole affair created a degree of scientific American-Hungarian resentment that persisted for the rest of the twentieth century.

In the remaining years before the Second World War Szent-Györgyi turned his attention to muscle and showed that muscle cells contain actin which, when combined with the protein myosin and the energy source ATP, causes the fibres to contract.

When the war began Szent-Györgyi joined the Hungarian resistance and in 1944, after the German invasion, he acted as a peace negotiator with the Allies. This so infuriated Hitler that he personally issued a warrant for Szent-Györgyi's arrest. When the war ended he had expected to be imprisoned by the Soviets because, as a gesture of support, he had given his Nobel gold medal to Finland when the country was attacked by the Soviet Union in 1939. To his surprise he was well treated, spending two months in Moscow where he hoped to meet Stalin to raise the issue of Russian brutality and suppression in the new satellite state of Hungary. He never did; perhaps just as well for him. He returned home to become Head of Biochemistry in the University of Budapest.

Gradually recognising the full horror of Soviet life, however, Szent-Györgyi became disenchanted and eventually, in 1947, emigrated to the USA where he worked at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole and at the National Institute of Health in Bethesda. As the foregoing might suggest, Szent-Györgyi arrived in America with a mixed reputation. As Walter Gratzer vividly described in his wonderful review of Ralph Moss's biography, Szent-Györgyi had "an abundance of vitality and charisma; in the previous 50 years he had experienced adventure and adversity, loyalty and betrayal, success and calamity. His nature was full of contradictions, of overwhelming charm and generosity, intermingled with egotism and vindictiveness. He was a brilliant and outrageous ham, as no one who heard him lecture is likely to forget. He was four times married, twice to women 50 years his junior, he bore himself heroically in two world wars, could, had he wished, have been a Head of State, and he might have had a share of three Nobel prizes, but the one he did get left a legacy of rancour and bitterness. He was loved, adulated and by some detested."

Szent-Györgyi became an increasingly isolated figure in American science as his views on cancer in particular became further detached from reality, not helped by his view that writing grant applications was beneath him and his observation on one occasion that cancer was coming close to keeping more people alive than it killed. Albert Szent-Györgyi died at Woods Hole in 1986 at the age of 93.


Albert Szent-Györgyi, c1930.