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Albert Szent-Györgyi—Nobel Laureate

      Albert Szent-Györgyi was born on September 16, 1893, in Budapest, Hungary. His father was a wealthy landholder, and his mother came from a family of eminent scientists who instilled in Albert the love of science. His maternal grandfather and great-grandfather were professors of anatomy and physiology in Vienna (Austria), and his uncle Michael (Mih´ly) von Lenhossék (1863–1937) was a well-known histologist.
      Szent-Györgyi entered the University of Budapest Medical School, and his first scientific paper was on the epithelium of the anus. He became disenchanted with histology and entered the Medical Corps during World War I (1914–1918). He was awarded the Silver Medal for valor and was returned to Budapest. In 1917, he received his MD degree and served in the army's bacteriological laboratories, where he criticized experiments of questionable value performed on Italian prisoners of war. Subsequently, he worked in a pharmaceutical laboratory in Pozsony (Bratislava), studied electrophysiology in Prague (Czechoslovakia) and physical chemistry in Berlin (Germany), joined the Institute for Tropical Hygiene in Hamburg (Germany), and obtained a position at the Institute of Pharmacology of the University of Leiden (the Netherlands). He moved to the Physiological Institute in Groningen (the Netherlands), where he produced experimental fistulas in dogs. During this time, he became interested in the mechanism of respiration in living cells. While working on plant tissue, he noted that the addition of peroxide to a mixture of peroxidase and benzidine produced a blue color from the oxidation of the benzidine. The addition of a peroxidase-rich plant such as cabbage or an orange caused a delay in that reaction. He reasoned that an agent present in the plant inhibited the oxidation of benzidine.
      Szent-Györgyi wrote an article on the respiratory mechanism in the potato, but the new chair of physiology at the Physiological Institute was interested primarily in animal physiology and suggested that Szent -Györgyi toss the manuscript into a wastebasket because it was totally irrelevant. However, a little-known journal accepted the article, and at the International Physiological Congress in Stockholm in 1926, British biochemist Sir Frederick Gowland Hopkins (1861–1947) mentioned the potato paper no fewer than 3 times in his presidential address. Szent-Györgyi introduced himself to Professor Hopkins, who suggested that Szent-Györgyi come to Cambridge (England) and join his department of physiology. At Cambridge, Szent-Györgyi sought to isolate from oranges, lemons, and cabbages the ingredient that inhibited oxidation. His thesis on this substance, which he named hexuronic acid, earned him his PhD degree. Because he could obtain only a few milligrams of this compound from plants, he attempted to extract it from adrenal glands.
      Dr Edward C. Kendall (1886–1972), director of the Division of Biochemistry at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn, invited Szent-Györgyi to spend a year working with him at Mayo. Szent-Györgyi found Minnesota “not especially interesting but the people very nice.” He readily obtained adrenal glands from the stockyard in St Paul (Minn) and returned to Cambridge University with 25 g of hexuronic acid.
      In 1930, Szent-Györgyi was asked by the Hungarian minister of education to return to Hungary and revitalize the scientific community there. He became chair of medical chemistry at the University of Szeged (southern Hungary). He and his colleagues determined that hexuronic acid was identical to vitamin C. In Birmingham (England), he and Walter N. Haworth (1883–1950) renamed the substance ascorbic acid. Szent-Györgyi found that paprika, a sweet red pepper grown in Hungary, contained large amounts of ascorbic acid. His laboratory produced more than 3 kg of the substance and distributed it to investigators throughout the world. He became interested in myosin and noted that muscles contracted with the addition of “myosin B.” One of his laboratory colleagues identified the active substance as actin and demonstrated that it contained all the properties of myosin B; thus, it was named actomyosin.
      Szent-Györgyi an antifascist, was placed under house arrest during World War II but escaped to the Swedish Embassy in Budapest. He was smuggled out of the embassy in the trunk of a car and remained in hiding until the Soviet troops arrived. After a short visit in Russia, he returned to reorganize the Academy of Science in Hungary. Through the intervention of US scientists, he entered the United States in 1947 and went to work at Woods Hole, Mass, where he continued his research on muscle contraction and became interested in cancer. He obtained support from the National Foundation for Cancer Research for his “bioelectronic” theory of cancer and with the use of electron spin resonance, began the search for free radicals.
      Szent-Györgyi died of kidney failure on October 22, 1986, at the age of 93 years. He was honored on a stamp issued by Hungary in 1988.