Introducing: Hungary's Nobel Prize Winners

Dénes Gábor 1988 Hungarian stamp
Dénes Gábor 1988 Hungarian stamp | © Hungarian Post Office - Szent-Györgyi Albert | © Fortepan, Semmelweis University Archives / Wikimedia Commons
Alex Mackintosh

Since the first Hungarian won a Nobel Prize in 1905, the country has added a further 12 to its cache. With scientists, writers and economists all honored in the prestigious awards, we take a look at some of Hungary’s iconic Nobel Prize Winners.

Phillipp Lenard in 1900 | © AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives,
American Institute of Physics / Wikimedia Commons

Philipp Lenard

Physics, 1905

“for his work on cathode rays”

Hungary’s first Nobel Prize winner, Philipp Lenard was born during the Austro-Hungarian empire. For the first half of his life he held Hungarian citizenship, and it was during this time that he won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1905, before gaining German citizenship in 1907. He was awarded the accolade for his work on cathode rays, however is remembered by many for his later position as Chief of Aryan or German Physics during the Nazi regime and his strong belief in the superiority of German science, or ‘Deutsche Physik’.

Robert Barany | © National Institutes of Health /
Wikimedia Commons

Robert Bárány

Medicine, 1914

“for his work on the physiology and pathology of the vestibular apparatus”

Born in Vienna to Hungarian Jewish parents, Bárány held Austro-Hungarian citizenship and studied medicine at the University of Vienna. It was in 1914 that he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine however, after being captured by the Russian Army while serving as an army medic during WW1, he was unable to accept his prize in person. After his release in 1916, he attended that year’s ceremony and received his award.

Richard Adolf Zsigmondy

Chemistry, 1925

“for his demonstration of the heterogeneous nature of colloid solutions and for the methods he used, which have since become fundamental in modern colloid chemistry”

Born in Vienna and holding Austrian citizenship, Szigmondy’s parents were Hungarian. Interested in science from a young age, Szigmondy played a key role in the development of the slit ultramicroscope and in 1925 won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his research on colloid solutions.

Szent-Györgyi Albert | © Fortepan / Semmelweis University
Archives / Wikimedia Commons

Albert Szent-Györgi

Medicine, 1937

“for his discoveries in connection with the biological combustion processes, with special reference to vitamin C and the catalysis of fumaric acid”

One of the most well-known vitamin supplements in the world today was discovered by Hungarian physiologist, Albert Szent-Gyorgi, in the 1930s. While working at the University of Szeged in the south of the country, he discovered Vitamin C along with research fellow Joseph Svirbely, and it was this which would earn him his Nobel Prize in 1937.

George de Hevesy

Chemistry, 1943

“for his work on the use of isotopes as tracers in the study of chemical processes”

Hungarian radiochemist George de Hevesy began his scientific career at the University of Budapest, where he studied chemistry, before moving to various countries throughout Europe. He made Copenhagen his home in 1920 before being forced to move to Stockholm during WW2 thanks to his Jewish descent. It was here that he won his Nobel prize.

Georg von Békésy

Medicine, 1961

“for his discoveries of the physical mechanism of stimulation within the cochlea”

After attending school in Budapest, Hungarian biophysicist George von Békésy went on to study in chemistry in Bern, Switzerland. After gaining an interest in the ways in which the ear works during WWII, he moved first to Sweden and then to Harvard University in the U.S – where, in 1961, he would be awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine. He eventually settled in Honolulu, Hawaii.

Eugene Wigner

Physics, 1963

“for his contributions to the theory of the atomic nucleus and the elementary particles, particularly through the discovery and application of fundamental symmetry principles”

While he was born in Budapest in 1902 and held Hungarian citizenship until 1937, it was as an American citizen that Wigner would win the Nobel Prize in 1963. He began his education at the Budapest University of Technical Sciences, before moving to Germany to complete his studies. In 1930 he began a career at Princeton University in the US, becoming a naturalized citizen in 1937. He would go on to work on the Manhattan Project to create the first nuclear weapons.

Dénes Gábor 1988 Hungarian stamp | ©
Hungarian Post Office / Wikimedia Commons

Dennis Gabor

Physics, 1971

“for his invention and development of the holographic method”

Born to Hungarian Jewish parents in Budapest, Gabor spent time serving in Italy during WWI before returning home to study first at the Technical University of Budapest, then at Charlottenburg Technical University in Berlin. His interest in electron optics was sparked early on in his career and, after escaping Nazi Germany during WWII, he took on a position at the British Thomson-Houston company. During this time, in 1947, he invented holography and would go on to be instrumental in its development throughout the years. It was for this that he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1971.

John Harsanyi

Economics, 1994

“pioneering analysis of equilibria in the theory of non-cooperative games”

Narrowly escaping deportation to a concentration camp under the Arrow Cross regime in Hungary before being forced to leave the country under the Communist regime in 1950, Harsanyi moved first to Australia then to the US to pursue his interest in the study of game theory in relation to economics. It was this interest which would ultimately lead to him winning the Nobel Prize in 1994.

Imre Kertész

Literature, 2002

“for writing that upholds the fragile experience of the individual against the barbaric arbitrariness of history”

While the prolific Hungarian writer is the country’s only Nobel Prize Laureate in Literature, Kertész in fact found his greatest success after emigrating to Germany. Having survived Auschwitz as a 14 year old during WWII, his work often focused on the experience of the Holocaust and his most celebrated novel Fatelessness tells the story of a 15 year old boy in the concentration camps of Auschwitz, Buchenwald and Zeitz.

Imre Kertész

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