The genius behind the discovery of vitamin C

lecso-serpenyoI like eating lecsó (letscho), and I love making it. It’s in season from June to September, making it the Hungarian summer staple food. The quintessence of this vegetable stew is sweet peppers in all shapes and colours mixed with onions, tomatoes, and paprika-spiced sausage.

Hungarians are crazy about this food not only because it’s delicious; it’s incredibly healthy as well.  Paprika contains several times more vitamin C than lemons or oranges and we can thank Hungarian scientist Albert Szent-Györgyi for this discovery in 1932. Five years later he was awarded the Nobel Prize for his innovative findings. Time magazine of the day just called it the ‘Paprika Prize,’ deservedly, since after more than a decade of experimentation Szent-Györgyi discovered the rich vitamin content of the paprika by analyzing it chemically instead of eating it, he disliked it anyway.  Though today vitamin C is a routine part of our diet, at the time it was revolutionary.  It hindered the development of scurvy, hence vitamin C’s official name: ‘a-scorbic acid.’ Famous for his bon-mots and special talent to make science understandable, Szent-Györgyi put it this way, “A vitamin is a substance that makes you ill if you don’t eat it.”

Known both in academic circles and popular culture mostly for his work with vitamin C, he actually left a larger-than-life size oeuvre behind him when he died at the age of 93. He could be considered the last of the great scientists who dedicated himself wholly to scientific truth without commercial compromise. He despised what he called ‘technologists’ and government funding that demanded an expected result from research. He said ‘if I know what the result will be, it’s not worth starting it in the first place.’

He lived a full life, and was a well-rounded figure whose unconventional character and amiable personality made him friends all over the world. Three adjectives best characterize his life: reckless, obstinate and curious. A reckless youth, an obstinate free-lancer who never gave in to the lures of either the Russian or the American academic establishment, and most of all an inquisitive scientist, in his own words: “As a researcher all I did was to satisfy my curiosity.”

Born into a well-to-do family in Budapest in 1893, as a child he showed no sign of the future genius. On the contrary, he played truant, disliked books and was even considered an idiot, at least by his family’s standards according to a memorable interview he gave to BBC in 1965.

A thirst for knowledge gripped him suddenly at the age of 16 when he declared to his maternal uncle, the most famous physiologist at the time in Hungary, that he wished to become a research doctor. In spite his uncle’s resolute discouragement he pursued medical studies and excelled in all possible fields. After studies in Berlin, research in Holland, and numerous publications, at the age of 33 he was renowned enough to be invited to Cambridge by Sir Frederick Gowland Hopkins, a great name in biochemistry.

  tvpaprikaThe highlight of his career Szent-Györgyi’s is associated with Szeged, the paprika capital of Hungary, where he was awarded a chair at the University, later becoming its President. The Nobel Prize in 1937 made him a celebrity and ensured a kind of political immunity, which he very much needed after joining the antifascist resistance in 1943. Later that year he was sent by Count Bethlen, the Hungarian Pro-Allies Prime Minister, to Istanbul under the guise of delivering lectures but in reality to have secret negotiations with the Allies about quitting the country’s German allegiance. His covert mission, however, was found out by the Germans and thus he had to go into hiding from the Gestapo for almost two years. Even Regent Horthy was summoned to Klessheim near Salzburg to meet Hitler where the Führer allegedly banged the table and shouted at the Admiral demanding that he extradite the ‘Schweinhund Szent-Györgyi.’

After the war he was wooed by the Russians who were considering making him president of the liberated country.  However, after two years of active involvement in reorganizing and modernizing the Hungarian Academy of Sciences he broke ties with the ruling communist elite and left the country in 1947. His application to apply for an American visa was not welcomed by the FBI, yet he managed to settle in the United States where he was naturalized in 1955.  He bought a large house called Seven Winds in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, where he set up his own laboratory for cancer research. He decided not to accept any academic position or government funding to preserve his commitment to independent science and free thinking. Seven Winds became a pilgrimage place for many scientists, and when they visited they were treated with great hospitality typical of Szent-Györgyi. For a few years even anti-war youth horded the place to listen to the anti-military speeches of the professor. As a staunch opponent of the Vietnam War he summed up his views on the moral responsibility of scientists in his book Crazy Ape (1970), an important part of his legacy as a humanist and thinker who devoted his life to uncovering the secrets of life.

His native country still holds him in the highest esteem; the Szeged Medical University was named after him following his death in 1986.

You can read more of the series of Magyar of the Month and learn more about the culture and language at the author’s website – www.fungarian.hu