This autumn, it will be exactly seventy years ago that the Hungarian biochemist Albert Szent-Györgyi was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine. The foundations for the award-winning research were laid in the period from 1922 to 1926 when he worked for the University of Groningen.
To mark the occasion, the University Medical Center Groningen and the University of Groningen are organizing a symposium on 20 June 2007 entitled ‘Nobel Prize Recovered’. The university and the UMCG are cooperating with the University of Szeged (Hungary), where Szent-Györgyi worked from 1930 until the end of the Second World War.
Szent-Györgye (1893-1986) was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1937 for his research into cellular respiration and Vitamin C. He started his study of cellular respiration, or biological oxidation, in the Physiological Laboratory on the Bloemsingel 1 in Groningen. After studying medicine in Budapest, Szent-Györgyi went to Germany, where he followed a course in physical chemistry. By 1920 he was in Leiden. Two years later he joined the laboratory of Prof. H.J. Hamburger in Groningen.
Hamburger was a renowned researcher who managed to attract a great deal of talent to his laboratory. A colleague at the time, the physiologist Prof. R. Brinkman, referred to the young Szent-Györgyi in his valedictory speech in 1965 as ‘the most brilliant amateur I ever met’. Brinkman tells the story that Hamburger arranged a wonderful laboratory room for Szent-Györgyi. ‘But he turned it down. He wanted to start in a small cellar room, just like his heroes Pasteur and Claude-Bernard.’
In his cellar laboratory on the Bloemsingel, Szent-Györgyi experimented with animal and plant tissue, which have brown discolouration in common. Various types of fruit and vegetables on sale on the Groningen market, such as potatoes, sugar beet, pears and apples, ended up on his laboratory table. He also ordered adrenal gland tissue from the abattoir because a certain complaint, Addison's disease, turns the skin brown.
Szent-Györgyi also experimented with plants that do not discolour brown, such as citrus fruits. He discovered a substance in the juice that can temporarily halt the discolouration. Adrenal tissue also turned out to contain such a compound. ‘The excitement in my little cellar room in Groningen was great when I discovered that the adrenal gland contained a similar reducing substance in relatively large quantities’, he related in his Nobel Prize lecture.
Hamburger’s death, and the succession of a professor more interested in psychology than physiology, complicated Szent-Györgyi's work in Groningen. In 1926 he transferred to Cambridge where he succeeded in isolating a pure form of the compound he’d discovered in Groningen. Because it was an acid with six oxygen atoms, he called it hexuronic acid. Later it turned out that the compound was identical to vitamin C.
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Albert Szent-Györgyi sketched by his brother-in-law Laci Demeny.
Double Nobel Prizewinner Linus Pauling called Szent-Györgyi ‘the most charming man in science’.
Programme of the 'Nobel prize recovered' Symposium
Date: Wednesday 20 June 2007
The programme will continue in the old Physiological Laboratory after 4 p.m.
Bloemsingel 1, Groningen
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