Editorial: Breaking the Hungarian Nobel Glass Ceiling


Photo by Bertil Jonsson / Shutterstock.com

The British have a saying: you wait around at a bus stop for hours, and then three buses turn up simultaneously.

I have no empirical evidence for how reliable a measure this really is when it comes to omnibus transportation, but its use has been expanded to cover just about anything you find yourself waiting for. Like Nobel prizes.

The official Hungarian tally for Nobel laureates, as recognized by the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, had stood at 13 since 2004, when Avram Hershko (born Ferenc Herskó in Karcag, 168 km east of Budapest by road, in 1937) won for chemistry. Just two years earlier, in 2002, another laureate of Jewish descent, Imre Kertész, the author of “Fateless,” had become the first Hungarian to win the literature prize. They were at the head of a remarkable lineage that goes back to the first Hungarian winner in 1905, Philipp Lenard (Philipp Eduard Anton von Lenard, to his friends), who won the physics prize for his work on cathode rays.

Lenard is an interesting case study of how messy Hungarian history can be and also demonstrates how hard it can be to pinpoint which winners come from where. He is listed as a German physicist by britannica.com, for example, and was born in 1862 in what was then Pressburg (Pozsony to Hungarians), Hungary but is today Bratislava, Slovakia. I have no idea if the Czechoslovaks claimed him as one of their own back in the day, or if the Slovaks do today. You could imagine that they might, but no winners are listed on the Wikipedia national breakdown. Lenard is also a case study of how what is viewed as acceptable changes with time. His was clearly a brilliant mind, but he was not a brilliant human. Britannica says of him: “An ardent supporter of Nazism, Lenard publicly denounced ‘Jewish’ science, including Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity.”

Anyway, back to those buses. After a wait of 19 years without a Hungarian Nobel laureate, this week we got two: Katalin Karikó (a graduate of Szeged University) for medicine and Ferenc Krausz (whose alma mater is the Budapest University of Technology and Economics) for physics. Meaning no disrespect to Krausz (and glossing over the fact that I have absolutely no idea what his work on attosecond pulses of light for the study of electron dynamics in matter means in the grand scheme of things), let us take a moment to celebrate Karikó. The work she and co-winner Drew Weissman, an American immunologist, did on mRNA led directly to the BioNTech/Pfizer and Moderna vaccines against COVID-19.

That will instantly make her a hero to countless millions worldwide and a villain to a tiny number of conspiracy theorists and anti-vaxxers. Never mind that, or that she apparently felt stifled in pursuing research in Hungary and moved to America to stretch her ambitions and brain. Let us just glory in the fact that she has shattered the glass ceiling for female Hungarian Nobel prize winners. She is also the latest in a list of 62 women to have won 63 prizes, stretching back to Marie Curie, who won in 1903 (physics), and then again in 1911 (chemistry). Here’s to many more female laureates, globally, of course, but also specifically in Hungary. It would be nice if a few of them felt encouraged and able to do their work here, to boot.

Robin Marshall


This editorial was first published in the Budapest Business Journal print issue of October 6, 2023.


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