Albert Szent-Györgyi’s discovery of the chemical ascorbic acid, more commonly known as vitamin C, made an essential contribution to the foundation of modern nutrition and was amongst many of his important discoveries in the medical field.
Dr Albert Szent-Györgi was born in Buda- pest, Hungary, from a noble family line that included three generations of scientists. His studies, started in 1911, were interrupted three years later by World War 1, during which time he served as a medic. Desperate to continue his studies, he shot himself in the arm (claiming he had been hit by enemy fire) and was discharged. He received his medical degree in 1917, and married the same year.
He spent the next few years researching the chemistry of cellular respiration, switching universities frequently. He gained a position as a Rockefeller Foundation fellow at Cambridge University and received his PhD in 1927 for work on isolating an organic acid (hexuronic acid) from the adrenal gland tissue. It was in 1930, together with his research fellow Joseph Svirbely, that they determined hexuronic acid to actually be vitamin C and gave it the formal chemical name L-ascorbic acid.
His research on biological oxidation provided the basis for the Krebs’ cycle. He received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine ‘for his discoveries in connection with the biological combustion process with special reference to vitamin C and the catalysis of fumaric acid.’
In 1938, he began work on the biophysics of muscle movement, revolutionising the field of muscle research and went on to establish the Institute for Muscle Research. He received the Cameron Prize (Edinburgh) in 1946 and the Lasker Award in Basic Medical Research in 1954, for contributions to understanding cardiovascular disease through basic muscle research. His United States citizenship followed a year later.
During the 1950s he became one of the first to explore the connections between free radicals and cancer, applying the theories of quantum mechanics to the biochemistry of cancer. After government funding ceased, attorney Franklin Salisbury supported Szent-Györgi in the establishment of the non-profit organisation: National Foundation for Cancer Research in 1971.
Ralph Moss, a protégé of Szent-Györgi during his cancer research, wrote a biography entitled: Free Radical: Albert Szent-Gyorgyi and the Battle over Vitamin C (1988, Paragon House Publishers, New York). Aspects of this work are an important precursor to what is now dubbed redox signalling.
His many publications include Oxidation, Fermentation, Vitamins, Health and Disease (1939); Muscular Contraction (1947); The Nature of Life (1947); Contraction in Body and Heart Muscle (1953); and Bioenergetics (1957).
During the 1960s and 1970s, Szent-Györgyi, like many scientists, spoke out against the Vietnam War and the growing threat of nuclear weapons. He published many articles and several books addressing these topics, including The Crazy Ape (1970).
His peers described him as an inspiration from his personal charm, his infectious enthusiasm for science, and his intuitive, playful approach to scientific questions. Szent-Györgyi never retired, and continued working at his lab until several months before his death.