Hungary has given many well-known (and less well-known) figures to the world who contributed to the development of science, literature, music, and various other fields. How many of them have you heard about?
KATALIN KARIKÓ (1955-)
A biochemist who specializes in molecular biology, she patented the mRNA technology that is used in one of the most trusted vaccines against the coronavirus that caused the latest pandemic – for this, she received the Nobel prize. She is senior vice president at BioNTech, the German company that produced the vaccine together with Pfizer, while she is also an adjunct professor at the University of Pennsylvania.
ERNŐ RUBIK (1944-)
An architect and a professor of architecture, he is most famous for the invention of the Magic Cube, or Rubik’s Cube. The puzzle game was most popular in the 1980s, but it is still played all around the world, and even has an international association that organizes competitions and recognizes world records. Over the years, similar puzzles have been produced with different colors, numbers of sides, and dimensions, but all use the same internal mechanism.
GEORGE SOROS (1930-)
Born in Hungary before World War II, he survived the German occupation and left for the UK where he studied both economics and philosophy. He made his fortune from hedge funds, but he is a philanthropist as well as an investor: through Open Society Foundations, he has donated billions in USD to reduce poverty, increase transparency, and support the higher education of promising young talents around the world.
ZSA ZSA GÁBOR (1917-2016)
Crowned Miss Hungary in 1936, Zsa Zsa Gábor emigrated to the United States in 1941 and became a sought-after Hollywood actress for her beauty and her “European” flair and style. She starred several films, but she was most known for her charming personality, her extravagant lifestyle, and her many marriages.
VICTOR VASARELY (1906-1997)
He was born as Győző Vásárhelyi in Pécs, but moved to France in 1930 and became the “grandfather of op art” (the art of optical illusions, where works give the viewer the impression of 3D, of movement, hidden images or vibrating patterns). His paintings are most recognizable for the arrangement of straight lines that give the illusion of curvature and depth, and for high-contrast colors (often black and white).
JOHN VON NEUMANN (1903-1957)
A child prodigy born to a wealthy, nonobservant Jewish family in Budapest, from a father elevated to nobility for his services to the Austro-Hungarian empire, János Neumann was a polymath who contributed to various fields in mathematics, economics, physics, and computing. In the 1930s he was offered lifetime professorship at the Institute for Advanced Study in New Jersey, but he also worked on the Manhattan Project, and he coined the term ‘kiloton’ (of TNT) for measuring the explosive force generated.
ALBERT SZENT-GYÖRGYI (1893-1986)
Hungarian biochemist and Nobel Prize winner in physiology and medicine (1937). Working at the University of Szeged, he was the first scientist to isolate Vitamin C, first from adrenal glands, and later from paprika, which is among the vegetables with the highest Vitamin C content. Vitamin C was found to be the agent crucial for the prevention of scurvy, one of the most common diseases related to malnutrition that killed millions of sailors and soldiers throughout history.
ZOLTÁN KODÁLY (1882-1967)
A composer and a researcher of Hungarian folk music, he might be best known for the “Kodály method” he established to improve the music education of young children in Hungary, which has since been adopted in many countries around the world. Its most influential elements include rhythm syllables (e.g. ti-ti ta-a) and moveable-do solfege (using do-re-mi instead of keys, emphasizing the relationship between sounds instead of absolute pitch).
HARRY HOUDINI (1874-1926)
Erik Weisz was born in Budapest, but his family moved to the U.S. when he was just 4. He began his magic career still as a teenager, and took on a stage name in homage to a French magician. He soon became experimenting with escape arts, and became most known for his wild escapes from chains, straitjackets, underwater, and ropes slung from skyscrapers. He was also president to the Society of American Magicians that expanded under his leadership and is still busy advancing and maintaining standards in the field of magic.
BARONESS EMMA ORCZY (1865-1947)
Born to an old noble Hungarian family, Baroness Orczy spent her early years moving between Budapest, Brussels and Paris before the family settled in London. She was a novelist and a playwright, creator of the Scarlet Pimpernel, the prototype of the “hero with a secret identity”, establishing the trope in popular culture.
IGNÁC SEMMELWEIS (1818-1865)
The “savior of mothers” was a Hungarian physician and scientist who came up with the then mind-blowing notion that doctors should disinfect their hands before and between treating patients. His results were most noticeable in reducing the number of deaths occurring in maternity wards because of the so called “childbed fever”. His observations conflicted with established medical theory and practice, which gained him many enemies.
In case you were wondering, there are even more celebrities with Hungarian roots — some of these might surprise you!
Edith Eva Eger