Today marks the 118th birthday of Albert Szent-Györgyi, a Hungarian-born physiologist and biochemist who won the Nobel Prize in 1937 and is best remembered for isolating vitamin C. Although many of us are familiar with his most famous discovery, which had important implications for treating diseases and boosting the immune system, not everyone knows about his courageous and eventful life outside the laboratory. The September 16 Google Doodle pays homage to this pioneering scientist, whose resistance activities during World War II drew the ire of Hitler himself.
Born in Budapest in 1893 into a noble Austro-Hungarian family, Albert Szent-Györgyi interrupted his university studies to serve as an army medic during World War I. Disillusioned with the war and eager to return to academia, he shot himself in the arm, claimed he had been wounded in battle and went home to complete his medical degree. He later received his doctorate from Cambridge University and spent time in the United States at the Mayo Clinic.
In the early 1930s, Szent-Györgyi isolated ascorbic acid, also known as vitamin C, from adrenal glands and paprika; the substance was soon proven to be an effective means of treating and preventing scurvy. He received the Nobel Prize for his work in 1937. He then began researching the biophysics of muscle movement and discovered the proteins actin and myosin.
When fascists gained control of the Hungarian government as World War II approached, Szent-Györgyi used his wealth and influence to help Jewish friends flee the country. He then joined the resistance movement and participated in secret negotiations with the Allies. Adolf Hitler allegedly learned of the scientist-turned-spy’s activities and personally ordered his arrest, forcing Szent-Györgyi to spend the end of the war hiding from the Gestapo.
After World War II, Szent-Györgyi established a laboratory at the University of Budapest and became active in politics, briefly serving as a member of parliament. But his opposition to the Soviet occupation of Hungary, which he considered a hindrance to scientific advancement, prompted his 1947 emigration to the United States. There he established the Institute for Muscle Research at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts.
Szent-Györgyi began focusing on the biochemistry of cancer in the late 1950s and founded the National Foundation for Cancer Research in 1973. Politically active throughout his life, Szent-Györgyi became an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War and the threat of nuclear weapons in the 1960s and 1970s. He died on October 22, 1986.