“Hungarian” Nobel Prize winners

by Eszter Hargittai on October 7, 2004

The Nobel Prize in Chemistry has been announced for 2004. I started compiling a post about it, but found myself sending emails to my father for clarification. He is an expert on the topic of Nobel Prizes (having written a book about it based on interviews with over 70 Nobel Laureates) so I decided to invite him to write a little blurb here for us. Given his expertise in the topic and the Hungarian connection of one of this year’s laureates, he has spent the last day and a half giving interviews to various media outlets in Hungary. I have edited his post ­ with his permission ­ by shifting some of the science information into a footnote to focus the attention on another component of his note. My father is Professor of Chemistry at the Budapest University of Technology.

Some experiences beyond chemistry of the 2004 Nobel Prize in Chemistry by István Hargittai

On October 6 the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for 2004 was announced. The citation was, “for the discovery of ubiquitin-mediated protein degradation.” The recipients were Aaron Ciechanover (b. 1947 in Israel), a professor of medical sciences at the Technion – the Israel Institute of Technology, Avram Hershko (b. Herskó Ferenc 1937 in Hungary), also a professor of medical sciences at the Technion, and Irwin Rose (b. 1926), an American professor, formerly at the Fox Chase Cancer Research Center in Philadelphia.[1]

There is an interesting side issue with Avram Hershko in that he was born in Karcag, Hungary, and then emigrated with his family in 1950 to Israel. He is one of several scientists of Hungarian origin who became famous and much recognized abroad. There are various counts of Hungarian Nobel laureates, but here is what the Prime Minister of Hungary allegedly said on the day of the chemistry prize announcement: He welcomed the news by referring to Hershko as the fourteenth Hungarian Nobel laureate and stressed that Hershko has kept his Hungarian name and language.

Recently, it has been generally recognized that most of those who used to be counted as Hungarian Nobel laureates should be more subtly labelled as Nobel laureates of Hungarian origin. Of all those who might be considered, only two actually travelled from Budapest to Stockholm to receive the award. In 1937, Albert Szent-Györgyi travelled from Budapest to Stockholm to receive his medical Nobel Prize (for Vitamin C, etc.) and in 2002, the writer Imre Kertész travelled from Budapest to Stockholm to receive the prize in literature for his book, Fateless, which was based on his experience in the Holocaust. All other laureates had long before their prize left Hungary, either they were forced out of the country or they realized that there was no future for them in Hungary.

Ironically, when Kertész was awarded, a vocal part of the population complained about his Jewishness, and expressed severe doubts whether his Nobel Prize could be considered a Hungarian Nobel Prize. With this it was demonstrated – if there was any doubt – that Jewish scientists and authors might have been justified to leave.

An objective and non-Jewish author who looked into the origins of what are considered Hungarian Nobel laureates determined that roughly about two thirds of them were of Jewish origin. This is a much higher proportion than the otherwise also considerable Jewish share of the Nobel laureates in toto, which is about one fifth.

Before continuing, I would like to stress that I do not see much value in trying to treat these categories rigorously, but they are of interest in showing some trends. The point I am trying to make is that Hungary much appreciates its Nobel laureates after they become Nobel laureates. What I find disturbing is that in such cases people attempt to paint the past rosier than it was. For example I have now, having been interviewed several times in the past day and a half, personally experienced how editors try to edit out details from Hershko’s past that refer to the less-than-glorious treatment of the Hershko family during the Fascist and Nazi times. If it were up to official Hungary of the late 1930s and early 1940s, Hershko and his family should have perished in Auschwitz. His father was sent to a so-called forced labor camp and he survived because early on he was captured by the Russians and, after another forced labor stint, he could return to Hungary in 1947. The rest of the Hershko family, Hershko’s mother and his brother and himself were taken to a ghetto first in their home town in Karcag, then to a larger concentration in Szolnok, in central Hungary. Most of these people were then put into cattle carriages under the most inhuman conditions and sent to Auschwitz. A few trainloads, however, ended up in Austria as a result of a deal between the Germans and a group of Hungarian Jewish leaders (behind the back of the Hungarian authorities). The Hershko family was among the lucky ones and were sent to a distribution camp of Strasshof near Vienna. [Eszter’s note: this is the same story of how my family survived, my father and the rest of my family who were still alive then were in this same situation.] About eighteen thousand Jews were thus “put on ice” in Austria and used as slave laborers until the end of the war while hundreds of thousands of other Hungarian Jews perished in Auschwitz and elsewhere. It was a miracle that Hershko and his family could return to Karcag. When they did, they found their former home empty, whatever could be taken from their home had been taken by their fellow citizens of Karcag, and nothing was returned to them voluntarily when they came back. These are details that editors edit out from descriptions of Hershko’s life in Hungary. His father used to teach in the Jewish school of Karcag. After the war, there were hardly people to teach there; they soon moved to Budapest, and in 1950 to Israel. Hershko changed his first name in Israel and he never used his Hungarian language again except for communicating with his parents. He did not visit Hungary until after the political changes in 1990 and when he did, he was taken aback by the return of many external features of pre-war Hungary which in his thoughts were associated with unpleasant things to remember.

Hershko does not like Hungary but does not hate Hungary either. He was pleased when Hungary’s Prime Minister called and congratulated him. He does not follow all what is being printed about him in the Hungarian media so he cannot be upset by the attempts of editors re-writing the past which Hungary still has not been able to face with honor.

Who wrote this?

I am Eszter’s father and this is based on my conversations with Avram Hershko and what I have experienced during the past one and half days in Budapest. Concerning the deportations of Jews from Hungary, their return (that of the few lucky survivors), and about present-day anti-Semitism in Hungary, see my book I. Hargittai, Our Lives: Encounters of a Scientist. Akadémiai Kiadó, Budapest, 2004.

fn1. Ubiqitin is a relatively small protein, which is instrumental in protein degradation. Our organism consists to a large extent of proteins. However, when some proteins are no longer needed, they have to be destroyed. There are illnesses that produce unwanted proteins and they have to be destroyed as well. This implies the potentials of medical applications of the discovery of these scientists, who understood the mechanism of action of ubiquitin. The breakthrough happened in 1979 and was communicated in a paper published in 1980. Hershko had started the work almost a decade before; Ciechanover was initially his doctoral student; Rose was a recognized researcher of enzymes when he and Hershko met and Hersho and Ciechanover spent some time in Rose’s laboratory in Philadelphia. Although most of the work then and since has been carried out at the Technion, the culmination of their research at that time happened in Rose’s laboratory with Rose’s participation.



Zizka 10.07.04 at 8:59 pm

Another famous Jew of Hungarian origin is George Soros. Some of his enemies are explicityly anti-Semitic (in the Ukraine, for example). Some just talk about shady international financial transations (but no human sacrifice or well-poisoning). Some accuse him of collaboration with the Hungarian fascists, based on a single incident from his mid-teens reported in a book by Soros’ father, who wrote a book, possibly THE book, about Hungarian Jewish collaboration.

I have tried to convince the Democrats that they should brag about Soros’ past rather than keeping him under wraps, but that hasn’t happened. He made a tremendous contribution toward bringing down Communism.

Soros is in every way infinitely more admirable than Moon, Scaife, and Koch, the Republican sugardaddies (two of whom may be mentally ill), but it has proven impossible for whatever reason for the Democrats to capitalize on this.


Maynard Handley 10.07.04 at 11:08 pm

Ignoring the issues of Hungarianess or not, can someone explain why this discovery is Nobel-worthy? I mean, the world is full of enzymes, plenty of which have had their mechanisms explained, with plenty left to explain. What makes this particular mechanism so important that it’s worth a Nobel rather than simply a paper in Nature (or at best the cover of Nature)?


Cryptic Ned 10.08.04 at 12:50 am

Ubiquitin isn’t an enzyme, it’s a small protein that binds to other proteins that are targeted for degradation. It’s important because basically with one protein you enable all pathways of protein degradation in lots of organisms. (all organisms? I don’t know)

As for medical usefulness, theoretically, just about any soluble protein – including all kinds of bacterial toxins – can be chosen for selective ubiquitin-binding and thus destruction. Because all human-made proteins bind to ubiquitin sooner or later.


Harry 10.08.04 at 1:20 am

Thanks for this Eszter.

Sadly you father’s account of how the Hungarian media are handling this story is not surprising.

I wonder how many newspapers in Budapest have ever reported the details on how many of the nobel prize winners were Jewish?

As for the point about Soros – a little known element of his work in Hungary was the Soros Breakfast.

For many years (and as far as I know it is still the case) the Soros Foundation paid for a glass of milk and a bready croissant (kifli) for every single child in every single Hungarian primary school.

And there is also the Central European University – a very interesting institution providing opporunities for people across Central and Eastern Europe.


Chris Costello 10.08.04 at 6:54 am

the otherwise also considerable Jewish share of the Nobel laureates in toto, which is about one fifth.

One fifth of all Nobel prizes? 20%? And the total Jewish population in the world is what (…googling…), 13 million? Which would be roughly two 1000ths (one fifth of 1%) of the current world population. Astounding! Can this be right?


Thomas Palm 10.08.04 at 10:00 am

Most of the world is still too poor and uneducated to participate in the Nobel race so the Jews may “only” have to compete with about one billion people. It
s still a remarkable performance, but Jews have for a long time valued education and intellectual performance higher than most others. This is probably at least partly a result of their persecution. When you have to be prepared to flee at a moments notice the only valuables you can count on are the ones stored in your head. Even people who disliked Jews were forced to accept them if they could do jobs no one else could.


David Tiley 10.08.04 at 10:23 am

This, by the by, exemplifies some of the strengths of the blogosphere which has been discussed on this site.

Fast comment by an expert communicating personal experience, which turns a public view inside out and gives us plenty to think about.


Carolos Obscuros 10.08.04 at 11:12 am

An absolutely fascinating posting — the best I’ve read on CT over the past fortnight!
Must mull over it and return later with something interesting to say about it.

Thomas Palm writes:
Jews have for a long time valued education and intellectual performance higher than most others. This is probably at least partly a result of their persecution. When you have to be prepared to flee at a moments notice the only valuables you can count on are the ones stored in your head.

Spot on — indeed, one may hypothesise that the Jews selected for brain and were practicing a kind of intellectual eugenics for 3000 years avant la lettre. Besides, persecution may have worked as a kind of ‘natural selection’ — the smartest Jews with the smartest genes survived and, since intelligence is to a large extent inherited, they passed on their smartness genes to their offspring.

Hence average Ashekenasi Jewish IQ is approximately 115 — or one standard deviation above the European average.

If you select for brain, you get brain and lots of Nobel prizes.

If you select for brawn, you get the brawn, few Nobel prizes, envy, hatred …


Roman Levin 10.08.04 at 1:45 pm

“If you select for brawn, you get the brawn, few Nobel prizes, envy, hatred …”

And of course, the lack of envy and hatred by Jews goes to prove your point.


jet 10.08.04 at 2:15 pm

Thomas Palm writes:
“Jews have for a long time valued education and intellectual performance higher than most others. This is probably at least partly a result of their persecution. When you have to be prepared to flee at a moments notice the only valuables you can count on are the ones stored in your head.”

I would say this is backwards. When Spain cast out its Jews it didn’t cause them to become better educated. They were cast out because they were already much better educated than most of Spain which allowed them to hold positions of wealth and power. This caused the resentment and slander that they had come about their success unfairly.

I think it is the stronger argument that Jews have always been better educated and that has been the leading cause of their resentment, not the other way around.

Jewish culture is arguably the most successful culture in the world, and certainly for a world population so small. And as Marx proved, everyone loves to hate those better off than themselves.


jet 10.08.04 at 8:31 pm

If anyone is interested in reasons why Kerry may not want to attract too much attention to Soros, take a look at this: http://billhobbs.com/hobbsonline/004634.html
Just the tip of the ice-berg, but a good place to start if you want to understand why so many on the right detest Soros.


Chris Costello 10.08.04 at 8:33 pm

Besides, persecution may have worked as a kind of ‘natural selection’ — the smartest Jews with the smartest genes survived

Hmm, I don’t know, Carlos. It wasn’t only the poor Jews from the shtetls that got caught in the Holocaust, but whole communities of modern, highly educated, highly assimilated (and, perhaps because of it, often very trusting) Jews from the great capitals of central and Eastern Europe — Prague, Budapest, Berlin, Warsaw, Vilnius, Vienna, Bratislava, Bucharest, Kiev — not to mention large roundups in Amsterdam, Antwerp and Paris. Who can estimate what the world lost along with 37% of its Jews?


Zizka 10.08.04 at 8:54 pm

Don’t bother to click the link. Jet’s citation says that a group which is part of a Soros-funded coalition has been accused of election fraud in Tennessee.

Apparently one employee of the organization, since fired, was responsible for the fraud.

Tennessee, along with Florida, is one of the states in which Republican vote-suppression activities have been most successful.

Jet, do you really believe that that was a powerful indictment? This is three removes from Soros.

The primary accusation all through the links I followed was that the group was leftist, like Kerry.


drminorka 10.09.04 at 2:30 am

I have to correct (partially)Istvan Hargittai. The main Hungarian quality newspapers were quite correct in reporting Avram Hershko’s Nobel Prize.

See (in Hungarian):

It is possible that, “Hershko does not like Hungary but does not hate Hungary either”, but one of his sons is studying in Budapest.

And yes, there are anti-semitism in Hungary. And there are people opposing it.


jet 10.09.04 at 4:32 am

If you think Soros is a great champion of the people, how do you explain these:
1992: In this year, Soros’s speculation made big news, as he pulled off major attacks on the currencies of Great Britain and Italy, after which he bragged about earning more than $1 billion by hurting the currencies of these nations.

Oh and I guess he might also be to blame as the trigger for the Asian Tiger recession
1997: Soros’s hedge funds launch a speculative attack against the Thai baht, in a move widely credited with triggering the great Asian financial crisis of 1997, which destroyed the economies of Indonesia, and many other nations.

Nothing like making money by directly creating misery for the masses. But when you are making billions that way, it apparently only takes a few hundred million spent on “fighting communism” to clear your name with the “progressives” of the world.

But your hero is also the man who decided to “punish” Asian countries for devalueing their currency by running up deficits to work on social projects like low income housing. But good ol Soros punished them for daring to impeed his profits. How dare they devalue in order to capitilize on their new found credit based on their record growth. Well, they learned not to mess with Soros, didn’t they?


Matt 10.10.04 at 1:41 am

Soros also did very good and useful work in Russia (and other FSU states, I believe) for many years, providing direct aid to Russian scientists and many universities. The university where I worked in Russia had a significant amount of equipment that came directly from Soros grants. There’s reason to think he personally did more good than than all the ill-spend USAID money did, and that if we’d followed his advice as to who to back in the ’96 election things might be much different there now. He was essentially run out of the country, w/ lots of mumbling about “foreign jewish influence” and the like by all sorts of unsavory folks there, most of whom are in the government.


Another Jonathan 10.10.04 at 1:45 pm

Why Chemistry?
A couple years ago my father mentioned to me that there were two Israelis who were top candidates to win the Nobel prize in medicine and that most thought it was just a matter of time. The people he was referring to ended up being two of this year’s winners. But they ended up being awarded the chemistry prize, rather than the prize in medicine.

I don’t want to appear petty but I’m under the impression that in some quarters the Chemistry prize is viewed as a step less presitgious than the Physics or Medicine prize. Does anyone know if this is true? If so, is there any reason to suspect that the Nobel committee intentionally shunting the first Israelis to win the Nobel prize in the sciences to the chemistry prize rather than the expected prize in medicine?
-Another Jonathan

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