Albert Szent-Györgyi of Nagyrápolt (1893-1986) came from one of the Hungarian noble families. Szent-Györgyi began his studies at the Faculty of Medicine in Budapest, but soon, bored with classes, he began to do research in his uncle's anatomy laboratory. His studies were interrupted in 1914 and he had to serve as a nursing officer during the First World War. In 1916, disgusted with the war, he shot himself in the arm and claimed to have been wounded by enemy fire; he was then sent home on medical leave. He was thus able to finish his medical studies and receive his doctorate in 1917.
Albert Szent-Györgyi wanted to understand the complexity of life. He tried to become a bacteriologist but he realized that the subject was too difficult. He became a chemist. For him, nature begins with electrons and protons to form molecules, which will aggregate to contribute to life.
Like Otto Warburg, Szent-Györgyi studied cellular respiration and the molecules that can modulate it. It was while working on redox that he discovered hexuronic acid. Albert Szent-Györgyi worked in Cambridge, England. It isolated low concentrations of hexuronic acid in human adrenals. Back in Hungary in 1931, Albert Szent-Györgyi tested paprika (cultivated in Hungary). He found large quantities of it. He renamed hexuronic acid: vitamin C, which is known to be present in quantity in oranges and lemons.
Antifascist, he tried to achieve an agreement between Hungary, which had an alliance with the Germans during World War II, and the allies. After the war he took refuge in the United States in Connecticut. There, despite his Nobel Prize, he had difficulty obtaining funding for his research. He didn't want to write funding requests because he didn't want to state the likely results of his research. For him, seeking cannot be constrained by a plan. Research is decided overnight and cannot be planned months or even years in advance.
At the Woodshole Marine Biology Lab in Connecticut, he tried to unravel the mystery of cancer using equations of quantum physics. He worked on the Warburg effect. In the 1950s, controversy raged. Warburg saw cancer as a consequence of cancerous fermentation. Another German Nobel Prize winner Heindrich Wieland believed that this fermentation was the result of electronic imbalance.
Szent-Györgyi exposes cells to cyanide. The cells can no longer use oxygen and therefore no longer burn sugar. They ferment and divide. These same cells are then exposed to Methylene Blue. This dye restores cellular respiration. Szent-Györgyi understands that Methylene Blue captures electrons and reverses cancerous fermentation. For Szent-György, biology is less complex than it seems. It’s all about electrons and protons. He says the Warburg effect is just a consequence of too many electrons. Cell proliferation is linked to excess electrons. This is a great intuition. Isolated in an institute dedicated to the sea, he will not continue until the treatment of cancer.
Szent-Györgyi, A. (1963). Lost in the twentieth century. Annual review of biochemistry, 32 (1), 1-15.