Forget vitamin C! Albert Szent-Gyorgyi lived with spies, lies.
Few remember the name Albert Szent-Gyorgyi, but he discovered vitamin C. Google honors the Hungarian scientist-turned-freedom-fighter-turned-covert-diplomat today with a citrus-packed doodle.
Haven't heard of him? Well you probably know his work.
Szent-Gyorgyi discovered vitamin C, the nutrient found in oranges, lemons, and grape fruits. But his life was much more interesting than just giving Florida a healthy excuse to hawk orange juice.
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He grew up in Budapest, Austro-Hungary, in 1893 – a time when being a landowner and tracing your lineage back to 1608 (as his father could) was a big deal. The Szent-Gyorgyis were ennobled. Their money and privilege allowed three generations to become scientists, mostly in anatomy. Szent-Gyorgyi followed the same path, but his studies were cut short by war.
Szent-Gyorgyi served as an army medic in World War I. Yet war disgusted him. Two years in, Szent-Gyorgyi lost patience and shot himself in the arm to avoid further duty. Claiming that he was wounded in battle, he lied his way into medical leave and returned home to continue his studies. He received his MD the next year.
In 1937, the doctor won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for discovering vitamin C. What did he do with the prize money? He gave it away. The Soviets had invaded Finland in November of 1939, sending close to 1 million soldiers and thousands of tanks. Early the next year, Szent-Gyorgyi offered all of his winnings to the Finnish resistance.
But the doctor also had more local concerns. When fascism swept into Hungary, Szent-Gyorgyi became a resistance fighter. He used his wealth to help Jewish friends flee the reach of anti-Semites. Once World War II broke out, Hungary aligned itself with the Nazis. Yet, the country's prime minister wanted to conduct secret negotiations with the Allied forces. He sent Szent-Gyorgyi to carry out these talks. The doctor scheduled a scientific talk in Cairo – a front for this covert mission. But the Nazis uncovered the scheme and arrested him. Miraculously, Szent-Gyorgyi escaped. He spent the rest of the war on the run, hiding from the Gestapo.
After the war, Hungary was still under the close watch of a foreign power – this time communism. Szent-Gyorgyi entered politics, becoming a member of parliament. But he grew frustrated with the Soviet influence over Hungary. In 1947, he moved to the United States, where he lived and studied until his death in 1986. He would have been 118 today.
Famous figures are often remembered for their most important contribution, and vitamin C was no doubt a major accomplishment. But moments such as today's Google doodle are a great chance to remember people's whole lives – not just what they studied, but what they did; not just their prizes, but how they spent their winnings.
So, salute to Albert Szent-Gyorgyi, Hungary's freedom-fighting, vitamin-discovering, Nazi-escaping, Nobel-winning, secret-negotiating scientist. Today is your day.
For more on how technology intersects daily life, follow Chris on Twitter @venturenaut.