A genius for discovery.
We medical students sat waiting for the first biochemistry lecture of the semester by Hungary's famous son and Nobel Prize winner. Suddenly a side door was flung open, and a young, vigorous man quickly strode to center stage. "If I wanted to create a human being, a homunculus, how would I proceed as a biochemist?" he asked.
With swift chalk strokes, he outlined basic structures on the blackboard. From time to time he swung around to face us, stepped to center stage and delivered an epigram: "The only difference between medical students and cabbages is that one is greener"--he didn't say which; "The Creator must have known a great deal of wave mechanics and solid-state physics and must have applied them. Certainly he did not limit himself to the molecular level when shaping life just to make it simpler for the biochemist."
The chalk grated on the slate as the chemical structures and bones appeared in white, nerves in yellow, veins in blue, arteries in red. Again he stepped to center stage: "Life as such does not exist; nobody has seen it. What we call life is the sum of certain reactions of systems of matter, as the smile is a quality or reaction of lips." With the consummate skill of a born actor, he paused. And then, full-faced to his delighted students, he said, "I cannot take the girl in my right arm and her smile in my left hand and study the two independently. Similarly, we cannot separate life from matter, but if we study this matter and its reactions, we study life itself."
At the blackboard, a few more swift strokes--and the form of a human being sprang from the chaos. I glanced behind me and saw that the enormous lecture room was jammed with people, sitting on the stairs, in window nooks, standing in the aisles. Professors, students from other classes and from the nearby chemical engineering university, the cleaning ladies, the policeman from the corner--all were mesmerized. When the lecture ended the applause shook the chandeliers. A quick smile and the professor disappeared with his magic. We medical students, awed by the recent presence of genius and convinced that biochemistry was the queen of sciences, staggred out into the bright sunlight.
Today, at 90, the grand old man is still at work bringing his genius to bear on the search for a cure for cancer, the disease that ravaged his own life by taking his first wife and his daughter, his only child. "Puzzles have to be solved," Dr. Albert Szent-Gyorgyi says, and cancer is a solvable problem.
Szent-Gyorgyi has been studying cancer for decades. He began with experiments on the effects of thymus extracts on growth of spontaneous cancer. Some of the extracts retarded, and still others promoted, cancerous growth. "The idea that growth should be regulated by two antagonists seemed too neat to be abandoned," Szent-Gyorgyi wrote. "This was my first round with cancer, which I won. The second round was won by cancer, which took what was dearest to me and knocked me out for several years."
In the laboratory today, Szent-Gyorgyi is attempting to illuminate cell activity on a submolecular level by examining the relationships between electrons, the tiny components of atoms. "We cannot understand cancer until we understand life, because cancer is just distorted life," he says.
Szent-Gyorgyi compares the cancer cell to a car parked on a slope. If the car starts moving, Szent-Gyorgyi points out, "One does not ask 'What drives it?' but asks, 'What has gone wrong with the brake?'"
We may be approaching the puzzle of cancer in the wrong way. "Until now cancer was looked upon as a hostile intruder which had to be eliminated. It might be looked upon also as a cell in trouble, which needs help to return to normal," he says. This new way of thinking comes naturally to a man who takes as his motto: "To see what everyone has seen and think what no one has thought."
Specifically, Szent-Gyorgyi believes that cancer may result from a deficiency of a substance that affects the cell's ability to use oxygen. This substance, if given with a vitamin-C-related compound, might restore cancer cells to normal function. Szent-Gyorgyi's interest in vitamin C goes back to his early research on ascorbic acid, vitamin C, for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize.
Szent-Gyorgyi is interested in curing disease--and in preventing it. Human beings are well adapted to their surroundings, but recently the surroundings have been changing and producing disharmony between man and his environment. Pollution of air and water, noise pollution, poor nutrition, cigarette smoking--all cause poor health.
"Present medicine is lopsided. It looked at disease till it was blinded and forgot about health. The ideal of present medicine is curing all disease, but 'no disease' is negative. 'Full health' is positive," he says.
Szent-Gyorgyi maintains that vitamins are an important factor in the coordination of the human body with its surroundings. "Vitamins, if properly understood and applied, will help us to reduce human suffering to an extent which the most fantastic mind would fail to imagine." For full health, vitamin C in particular is a necessity. "Ascorbic acid should be a household article, like sugar or flour, and be sold by the pound in the supermarket, instead of being sold in pills by the druggist."
"I am not so terribly old," Szent-Gyorgyi once wrote (he was nearly 80 and was about to learn to waterski), but his memory goes back to the time when his uncle, also a scientist, told him that a lecture proving the impossibility of flying with heavier-than-air objects was given at the French Academy of Sciences. "Everybody felt relieved because the idea of flying had begun to bother people," he says. Szent-Gyorgyi also recalls that when the first car visited his father's farm, "the farmhands demanded that the hood be opened and the swindle--that is, the hidden horse--be exposed."
Now we live in a new world "in which I can watch in living color my fellow man stepping onto the moon and even hear him talking, sitting, myself in slippers, at home," he says. A new world, Szent-Gyorgyi reminds us, demands new ideas.
"Why does man behave like a perfect idiot?" Szent-Gyorgyi asks in The Crazy Ape, his little philosophical book. He pleads for men to come to their senses and to unite to make a better world.
"Today is the first time in man's history that he is able to truly enjoy life, free of cold, hunger and disease. It is the first time he is able to satisfy all his basic needs," Szent-Gyorgyi says. It is also, tragically, the first time that "man has the capability of exterminating himself in one blow or making his lovely little globe uninhabitable by pollution or overpopulation. . . . On our shrunken globe today there is room for one group only, the family of man," he concludes.
Szent-Gyorgyi believes that scientists can lead in uniting mankind. "The spirit of science is that of good will, mutual respect and human solidarity. This results from the fact that science was not built by any single nation or race but is the common property of man, having been created by peoples of the most different backgrounds and descents. Scientists form one single community which knows no borders of space or time. Although I am living in a certain community at a certain time, Newton, Pasteur and Bach are my daily companions."
Bartlett's Familiar Quotations records Szent-Gyorgyi's description of the real scientist, "ready to bear privation and, if need be, starvation rather than let anyone dictate to him which direction his work must take." Science demands courage, the strength to take the leap into the unknown, not once, but again and again. "There is but one safe way to avoid mistakes," Szent-Gyorgyi says, "to do nothing or, at least, to avoid doing something new. This, however, in itself may be the greatest mistake of all. . . . The unknown lends an insecure foothold, and when venturing out into it one can hope for no more than that the possible failure will be an honorable one."
Szent-Gyorgyi exhorts the scientists who work in his laboratory: "If everything given to us by research were to be taken away, civilization would collapse and we would stand naked, searching for caves again." He reminds them that where creativity is concerned, the arguments of the marketplace do not apply: "Businessmen may argue on the basis of efficiency: that if one woman produces a child in nine months, nine women should be able to produce it in one month."
He expects his coworkers to do their own thinking. His nephew and long-time associate, Dr. Andrew Szent-Gyorgyi, says that Szent-Gyorgyi taught the essentials and left the rest up to the individual scientists: "Much of the trade we learned on our own. There was the prevailing attitude that to do research was tremendous fun and the most exciting thing one could do with one's life. 'Prof' was always a very hard worker with an unusual ability to concentrate on the formulation of questions in the simplest possible way. Even when Szent-Gyorgyi was wrong he did it in a glorious way."
Albert Szent-Gyorgyi was born in Budapest on September 16, 1893. On his mother's side, he is the fourth generation of scientists. His father was a wealthy landowner in Hungary. "My father was interested only in farming, and so my mother's influence prevailed. Music filled the house, and the conversation at the table roamed about the intellectual achievements of the entire world. I am a scientist, myself, because at an early age I learned that only intellectual values were worth striving for, artistic or scientific creation being the highest aim," Szent-Gyorgyi wrote in an autobiographical sketch, "Lost in the Twentieth Century."
At 16, Szent-Gyorgyi began to study medicine. When the First World War broke out, he served on the Russian and Italian fronts, won the Silver Medal for valor and returned to the university to receive his M.D., in 1917. He worked in laboratories at universities in Pozsony (Bratislava), Prague, Berlin, Hamburg, Leyden and Groningen. "Salaries were very low but allowed for a very modest life, which was happy and quiet," Szent-Gyorgyi remembered.
In 1927 he went to Cambridge on a Rockefeller Fellowship under the famed Sir Frederick Gowland Hopkins. There he isolated the reducing agent he had been working on at Groningen and crystallized it from oranges, lemons, cabbages and adrenal glands. The new substance was named hexuronic acid, the research paper was published and Szent-Gyorgyi received his Ph.D. from Cambridge University.
In hexuronic acid, Szent-Gyorgyi had discovered vitamin C, but he did not yet know what he had. To elucidate the structure and biological significance of the new compound, he needed much more than the few milligrams available.
In 1930 Szent-Gyorgyi accepted the chair of medical chemistry at the University of Szeged, Hungary. There he succeeded in isolating and crystallizing a kilogram of hexuronic acid from Hungary's favorite vegetable, the paprika. He determined that the compound was ascorbic acid, the vitamin cure for scurvy, that traditional woe of seafaring men. In 1937 Szent-Gyorgyi was awarded the Nobel Prize for his work on cellular respiration and his discovery of vitamin C.
Then he shifted his extraordinary abilities and intuition to the biochemistry of muscular contraction. To see the muscles contract in the beaker and "to have reproduced in vitro one of the oldest signs of life, motion, was perhaps the most thrilling moment of my life," he said. Spin-offs from this work include current investigations on muscular dystrophy and a method now widely used for conservation of biological material such as sperm. In 1954 he won the prestigious Albert Lasker Award for his theory of muscular contraction.
Since 1947 Szent-Gyorgyi has done his research in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, where he is scientific director of the National Foundation for Cancer Research, a publicly funded, not-for-profit research organization established by Franklin and Tamara Salisbury. His work focuses on cellular regulation and cancer. In his conviction that cancer cannot be understood by any single approach, he and the foundation have organized a "Laboratory without Walls," which includes 60 laboratories in 14 countries working along different lines but having similar aims and pooling their scientific results.
Thirty years after I had attended that first lecture in Hungary, I witnessed a similar galvanizing lecture in the United States. The place was Boston, and the occasion was the celebration of the 80th birthday of Szent-Gyorgyi.
During his lecture, Szent-Gyorgyi was constantly in motion, hands outspread, clasped or lifted above his head like a prizefighter's. He hugged himself and rocked on his heels to illustrate a difficult idea. As he strode up and down the platform, the chemical formulas projected on the screen were printed momentarily on his litup, deeply tanned face. He ran his fingers through his white hair, and it stood up above his broad forehead and made an impish halo. "Very clever scheme the old Creator up there had thought up. It must have given him pleasure to think up such a scheme, don't you think?" he asked as he erased an equation from the blackboard with a swipe of his bare hand.
At the banquet that night he said, "The best thing in life is a good fight," the fight against disease being his arena. He referred to scientists as a family in their belief in the search for truth: "We are always one big family playing together.
"I never cared for honors, but I always like pleasure. Research is a divine service, a divine vocation. God is the artist and the greatest compliment you can pay an artist is to study his works."
On the weekend we drove to Cape Cod for the rest of the party. The first event was a tea at Szent-Gyorgyi's house on Penzance Point. Rain lashed our faces as we climbed to his house, but we stood for a minute at the door and looked out to the stormy sea where the Prof enjoys swimming against the rip tide. All his life, Szent-Gyorgyi has been playing whatever sport came to hand, volleyball with his associates, ice skating, sailing, excursions by rowboat and mountain climbing. One summer he traveled through Spain by motorcycle.
The Prof enjoys fishing in the ocean by his laboratory. He always uses a big hook, and when he was asked why, he answered, "I think it is more exciting not to catch a big fish than not to catch a small one."
At his birthday party Szent-Gyorgyi made a little speech: "I imagine you all came here--and I am so happy you did come--and you thought to yourselves, 'We'll give the old fellow a good end to his life.' But I am just getting my second bloom!"
In September 1983 a group of famous scientists gathered at the Harvard Club of Boston to honor Szent-Gyorgyi on his 90th birthday. A symposium on basic cancer research was held throughout the day. The next morning Szent-Gyorgyi was back in the laboratory. Has he not said that patience is unacceptable in the search for a cure for cancer?
So the Prof is past 90 now, but it is too early to retire him. The bloom is still on Dr. Albert Szent-Gyorgyi, one of the greatest and most courageous men of our modern 20th century.
To this man who won the Nobel Prize nearly 50 years ago, neither past successes nor past failures are obstacles to his present concerns. "I never look back," he says firmly. "I only look forward."
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|Title Annotation:||Albert Szent-Gyorgyi|
|Publication:||Saturday Evening Post|
|Date:||May 1, 1984|
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