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Great Hungarian discoveries: Vitamin C

Great Hungarian discoveries: Vitamin C

Vitamin C is a substance of vital importance in the human body. Until its discovery, a grave nutritional disease spread across Europe. Then a Hungarian man, Albert Szent-Györgyi discovered the remedy of scurvy: the Vitamin C. And it all happened thanks to a lucky incident…

Scurvy is a disease resulting from a lack of Vitamin C. It was first spotted among seamen, who had peculiar symptoms: their teeth loosened and bled, their limbs swelled, they felt tired easily. First they thought that the remedy was cleanness, exercise, and cheer, but by the 1700s they figured out that lemon and lime heal the symptoms. Still, on the European continent the disease was still apparent in the 1900s, the last huge epidemic broke out in 1911 in Nurnberg.

The essence of the condition was found out when a Hungarian doctor, Albert Szent-Györgyi made a groundbreaking discovery during the examination of a paprika.

Still, the discovery happened in some ironic and funny circumstances, as mentions.

First of all, the examination of paprika was made possible by sailors who made the discoveries in the 15th century. They brought paprika to the European continent in 1492. The irony in the story is that, as we have mentioned, sailors were the most vulnerable to this disease and they often suffered from this condition. And Szeged, the Hungarian city, became one of the main centres of paprika cultivation in the Carpathian Basin, where Szent-Györgyi worked as a professor in the 1930s.

Albert Szent-Györgyi began his studies at the Semmelweis University in 1911, then began his research in his uncle’s anatomy lab, but his studies were interrupted in 1914,when he had to serve as an army medic in World War I. After leaving the army (he purposely shot himself in the arm) he finished his studies and married Kornélia Demény. Afterwards, he began his research in Bratislava, then moved on to the University of Groningen, where his work focused on the chemistry of cellular respiration. This work landed him a position as a Rockefeller Foundation fellow at Cambridge University, where he received his PhD. Then he accepted a position in the University of Szeged, where he made the great discovery of Vitamin C.

Photo: Albert Szent-Györgyi, Wikicommons Pesti Napló képes melléklet, 1937. október 31.

So the second funny aspect of the discovery is that Szent-Györgyi did not like paprika at all. His discovery is partly a result of this. His wife packed paprika for the professor for his lunch, but he put it in his pocket, so that his wife would not scold him for not eating it. He meant to scrutinise the breathing of plant cells, but he found a compound instead: this was the Vitamin C, the lack of which substance caused scurvy. Its scientific name is antiscorbutic factor.

For the discovery, Szent-Györgyi received a Nobel Prize in Psychology or Medicine in 1937. He offered all of his Nobel prize money to Finland in 1940.

He died in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, USA on October 22,1986. He was honoured with a Google Doodle September 16, 2011, 118 years after his birth. In 2004, nine interviews were conducted with family, colleagues, and others to create a Szent-Györgyi oral history collection.

Source: Daily News Hungary

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