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National Library of Medicine (NLM)

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Robert Mehnert

Albert Szent-Györgyi Papers Now Available on Profiles in Science

His scientific career spanned 73 years, at least four countries, and topics ranging from anatomy to quantum biology. He won a Nobel Prize for isolating vitamin C, and his research on biological oxidation provided the basis for Krebs’ citric acid cycle (which transforms food energy into energy for life processes). Hitler’s Gestapo chased him during World War II. He unraveled the biochemical processes that make muscles move, and was one of the first to explore the connections between free radicals and cancer.

This remarkable scientist was Albert Szent-Györgyi, MD, PhD (1893–1986), one of the twentieth century’s greatest scientists. Szent-Györgyi’s papers are now online at the National Library of Medicine, as a new addition to Profiles in Science, found at http://www.profiles.nlm.nih.gov. This brings to 15 the number of notable researchers and public health officials whose personal and professional records are featured on Profiles. The National Library of Medicine (NLM) is a part of the National Institutes of Health.

“Dr. Szent-Györgyi was an innovative and imaginative researcher — a pioneer in several areas of biochemistry. He was a great humanitarian, a charismatic and eloquent teacher, a great wit, and deeply involved in politics. First and last, he was a great scientist,” said NLM director Donald A. B. Lindberg, MD.

Albert Szent-Györgyi was born in Budapest and remembered himself as “a very dull child” and a poor student. As a teenager, however, he became fascinated with science, and graduated high school with honors. Desiring to become a medical researcher like his uncle, he entered the Budapest Medical School in 1911. His medical education was interrupted by World War I, when he was called to serve as an army medic. Several years in the trenches instilled a lifelong conviction that wars were huge, destructive swindles perpetrated by social and economic elites. (Fifty years later, he would vociferously protest the nuclear arms race and the Vietnam war.)

Szent-Györgyi completed medical school in 1917, and after the war spent seven years in different labs in Czechoslovakia, Germany, and the Netherlands, learning all he could about biochemistry. During this time, he became interested in biological oxidation, e.g., why some fruits turn brown when exposed to the air. He accepted a Rockefeller fellowship at Cambridge University in 1926, where he worked to isolate a then-unknown substance found in citrus fruit, some vegetables, and adrenal glands, which prevented browning. Not sure of its identity, he called it “hexuronic acid.” Cambridge awarded him a PhD for the work in 1927. In 1931, Szent-Györgyi returned to Hungary to head the University of Szeged’s department of medical chemistry, where he assembled a group of young researchers. Szent-Györgyi asked one of them, American Joseph Svirbely, to test “hexuronic acid” for anti-scurvy properties. They soon identified it as vitamin C.

Increasingly interested in the biochemical processes causing muscle movement, Szent-Györgyi also investigated respiration in muscle tissue during this period, clarifying the role of dicarboxylic acids, and identifying the process as a cycle. He correctly defined most of the steps in the process, later known as the “Krebs cycle.” Szent-Györgyi was awarded the 1937 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for “discoveries in connection with the biological combustion processes, with especial reference to vitamin C and the catalysis of fumaric acid.” As the first Hungarian to win that prize while residing on native soil, he became a great celebrity there.

During World War II, Szent-Györgyi continued, as best he could, his research into the biochemistry of muscle movement. His activities in Hungary’s anti-Nazi underground during 1943–45 — including a perilous mission to make contact with Allied officials on behalf of Hungary’s government — nearly got him arrested by the Gestapo, but made him a national hero.

Following the post-war Soviet takeover of Hungary, Szent-Györgyi emigrated to the United States and settled at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, where he continued to study muscle contraction chemistry, and did pioneering work on the electron microscopy of muscle. In 1954, Szent-Györgyi received a Lasker Award for his contributions to understanding cardiovascular diseases through basic muscle research. His later work in submolecular or quantum biology opened up new avenues of cancer research, particularly the roles of free radicals in cancerous cell changes.

The online exhibit features oral histories, published articles, lectures, documentaries, and photographs from the Szent-Györgyi papers. Visitors to the site can view, for example, many of Szent-Györgyi’s publications as well as photos of him and his lab staff working and playing. An introductory exhibit section places Szent-Györgyi’s achievements in historical context.

Profiles in Science was launched September 1998 by the National Library of Medicine. The Library, the world's largest library of the health sciences, is a component of the National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) — The Nation's Medical Research Agency — is comprised of 27 Institutes and Centers and is a component of the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services. It is the primary Federal agency for conducting and supporting basic, clinical, and translational medical research, and investigates the causes, treatments, and cures for both common and rare diseases. For more information about NIH and its programs, visit www.nih.gov.

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