Szent-Györgyi, Albert

(Budapest, September 16th, 1893 – Woods Hole, Massachusetts, USA, October 22nd, 1986)

Nobel prize winner physician, first of all famous for the isolation of vitamin C, his research primarily concerned the mechanism of biological oxidation processes in living organisms, metabolism, muscular biology, and vitamins. Web link

He was the son of Nicolaus von Szent-Györgyi, a great landed proprietor and Josefine, whose father, Joseph Lenhossék, and brother Michael were both Professors of Anatomy in the Péter Pázmány University of Sciences. Web link He took his final examination at the Budapest (Lónyay street) Calvinist Gymnasium then matriculated in 1911 and entered his uncle's laboratory where he studied until the outbreak of World War I. He did military service on the Italian and Russian fronts, gaining the Silver Medal for Valour, and he was discharged in 1917 after being wounded .

He completed his medical studies in Budapest. Web link His attention soon turned towards physiology.and worked successively with the pharmacologist, G. Mansfeld at Pozsony, with Armin von Tschermak at Prague, where he studied electrophysiology, then in Berlin in the institute of Leonor Michaelis, before he went to Hamburg for a two-year course in physical chemistry at the Institute for Tropical Hygiene. In 1920 he became an assistant at the University Institute of Pharmocology in Leiden. Web link

At the invitation of professor H.J. Hamburger he continued his research work in the Physiological Institute of Groningen; there he began to deal with the theory of biological oxidation and intracellular respiration, processes essential to energy production in living systems and discovered the possibility of a mediating system consisting of simple four-atomic organic acids between the opposing theories of “oxygen activation” (Warburg) and “hydrogen activation” (Wieland). He described their interdependence and made his first observations on co-dehydrases and the polyphenol oxidase systems of plants. He also demonstrated the existence of a reducing substance in plant and animal tissues. His research on biological oxidation provided the basis for a further result. Soon afterwards this system was completed to a cycle by H. Krebs by adding citric acid and some of its derivatives to it. This Szent-Györgyi-Krebs citrate cycle became one of the keys to the molecular theory of cellular metabolism.

One of his research publications caught the attention of F.G. Hopkins, the later Nobel prize winner biochemist, invited Szent-Györgyi with a one-year Rockefeller-scholarship to his own institute. There he worked on isolating a sugar-like reducing agent crystallised from plants, but in a considerable quantity it could only be produced from the adrenal gland. So he accepted an invitation to the Mayo Clinic of Rochester where he could obtain adrenal glands in the necessary quantity and returned to Cambridge in 1929 with the abstracted substance, which is now known as ascorbic acid. W.N. Haworth, the most famous sugar-chemist of the era undertook to carry out the exact structural determination of the new compound. He later described the pharmacological activity of the nucleotides with Drury.

The Francis Joseph University of Sciences, Szeged Web link invited him in the autumn 1928 to the new biochemical department and he accepted this invitation. Finished his research work abroad in 1930 he took the Chair of Medical Chemistry. He was a captivating teacher and informal administrator. He quickly organized a group of young researchers, and start them to work on different biochemical problems.

After two months of intensive research Szent-Györgyi proved his hypothesis: vitamin C and hexuron acid have the same chemical structure, so it was given the name ascorbic acid. However, in Hungary he also could not get the necessary quantity of adrenal glands, so another source of ascorbic acid had to be found. Fortunately he found that paprika (capsicum annuum), produced in big quantity in the Szeged region, proved to be a rich in vitamin C. His studies of biological oxidation led to the recognition of the catalytic function of the C4-dicarboxylic acids, It was also determined that something was missing from crystalline ascorbic acid which could be found in vitamin C, namely flavin and a recognition of the biological activity and probable vitamin nature of flavanone, which Szent-Györgyi named vitamin P. He also noted the anti-scorbutic activity of ascorbic acid.

Szent-Györgyi obtained the medical Nobel prize of 1937 with respect to “discovering biological oxidation processes, with special regard to vitamin C and the catalysis of fumaric acid.

In 1938 he commenced research to study the biochemistry and retraction of muscles, which was still poorly understood. He and his team discovered the protein, actin, which combined with the known muscle protein myosin to form the complex protein actomyosin. This led to a reproduction of the fundamental reaction of muscle contraction: when they added adenosine triphosphate (ATP) (the primary source of energy in animal cells) to actomyosin, the fibers of that protein contracted. The result formed the base of muscle research in the following decades.

During the 1930's he was increasingly involved in anti-nazi activities and during World War II he took part of Hungary's resistance. In 1943 the Hungarian prime minister asked Szent-Györgyi to open secret negotiations with the Allies. Szent-Györgyi traveled to Istanbul (allegedly to give a scientific lecture) and met with Allied representatives regarding Hungary's possible defection from Axis alliance, but German agents learned of the plan. By the summer of 1944, at Hitler's request, Szent-Györgyi was under house arrest. , He slipped off, and spent several month hiding in Szeged and Budapest. He was given extensive help by the Swedish Embassy in Budapest and became a Swedish citizen.

When the war ended Szent-Györgyi worked for several years to rebuild Hungary's scientific life, hoping that the new regime would support research. He took the Chair of Medical Chemistry at Budapest. He was the Vice President of the Hungarian Academy of Science Web link

He was soon disappointed owing to the Communist rule in Hungary, and in 1947 emigrated to the United States .

He joined the Marine Biology Laboratories at Woods Hole, MA, and founded its Institute for Muscle Research. where he continued research on heart muscle. His discoveries about the biochemical nature of muscular contraction revolutionized the field of muscle research.

In addition to his main research work he also developed several experimental methods, as the preservation of biological material as muscle tissue in glycerine, which has had extensive application including agricultural use; the use of rabbit psoas muscle as an experimental material etc. He did pioneering work on the electron microscopy of muscle during this time.

In 1955 he became a U.S. citizen and one year later, he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences.

After the late 1950s, Szent-Györgyi's research focused increasingly on "submolecular" biology, the application of quantum physics to biochemical problems, particularly the sub-molecular aspects of energy transport mechanisms in tissues, and try to explore the relations between free radicals and cancer.

Szent-Györgyi never retired, and continued working with biophysicists and others who could quantify his ideas about electrons and cancer at his MBL lab until several months before his death During the 1960s and 1970s, Szent-Györgyi, like many scientists, spoke out against the Vietnam war and nuclear weapons. He published many articles and several books addressing these topics, including The Crazy Ape (1970).

In 1973 he visited his homeland again with his friend Zoltán Bay, and later participated on the event of the come back of the Hungarian crown from the United States.

He was interested in sport of all kinds, his favourites being sailing and alpinism.

The University of Szeged was renamed in his honour as Albert Szent-Györgyi Medical University, Szeged

Memberships: Past President of the Academy of Sciences, Budapest, and a Vice-President of the National Academy, Budapest. Société Philomatique de Paris (from 1913), Société de Biologie (1934), Biologische Gesellschaft (1936), Finnish Duodecim Medical Society, Yugoslavian Medical Society, National Academy of Sciences (US, 1956). He was Visiting Professor, Harvard University in 1936 and Franchi Professor, University of Ličge, 1938.

Honours: medical Nobel prize (1937), Cameron Prize (Edinburgh 1946), Lasker Award (1954), Claude Bernal medal.

Selected bibliography: Szent-Györgyi published over 300 scientific articles and 11 books during his career.