Free Radical: Albert Szent-Györgyi and the Battle over Vitamin C
In Praise of Imperfection: My Life and Work
Albert Szent-Györgyi was a flamboyant Hungarian biochemist, famous for having isolated vitamin C and for other important discoveries. He was born in Budapest in 1893, lived in Europe through two world wars, and then spent the remainder of his long life at Woods Hole on Cape Cod, where he died in October 1986. His name is the Hungarian for Saint George, whom he tried to emulate when he attempted single-handedly to save his country from the Nazi and Soviet dragons. The title “Free Radical” is a play on his political and chemical beliefs and the catchy subtitle refers to an alleged battle that occupies no more than thirteen of the book’s 316 pages.
Albert Szent-Györgyi was the son of a landowner who spent his time “thinking about the sheep, the hogs and manure” and of a sensitive, musical mother who was descended from a family of distinguished academics. Albert was a mediocre pupil at first, but at sixteen he began to read widely and decided to follow his uncle, the physiologist Mihaly Lenhossek, into medical research. His uncle’s mistrust of his ability proved one of the spurs to his career. Szent-Györgyi told his biographer that from his earliest days he recognized in himself an intuitive, almost mystical ability to hear the voice of nature, something akin to a poet’s inspiration. This ability was to guide him to success at first; we shall see that it became a recipe for self-deception in later life.
In 1914 Szent-Györgyi was drafted into the Austro-Hungarian army and sent to fight the army of the czar. After three gruesome years he “became increasingly disgusted with the turpitude of military service.” “I could see that we had lost the war…. The best service I could do for my country was to stay alive.” He shot himself in the arm so that he could be discharged and complete his medical studies. Szent-Györgyi’s horrifying experiences in the First World War made him fight for peace for the rest of his life. Soon after the end of the war, Szent-Györgyi left Hungary with his young wife and infant daughter to do research abroad. He had no grant, only six hundred pounds sterling from the sale of his father’s estate. This proved insufficient to supplement his meager earnings at a succession of Czech, German, and Dutch universities. He and his family lived under hardships so great that he developed hunger edema, the swelling that comes from malnutrition. Yet he was determined to pursue his own ideas rather than work at his professors’ bidding: “The real scientist is ready to bear privation, if need be starvation, rather than let anyone dictate to him which direction his research must take” (A. Szent-Györgyi in “Science Needs Freedom.” 1943).
During the Twenties and Thirties the chemical mechanism of the oxidation of nutrients, the process from which animals get their energy, posed one of the great unsolved problems of biology. Most of our nutrients, like starch, proteins, or fats …