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Journey into the Brain with Dr. Abel Lajtha
Journey into the Brain with Dr. Abel Lajtha

1. Commemorative science plaque - 2.1000 year-old Chinese vase -3.Szent-Györgyi memorial plaque - 4-5. Oriental statuettes - 6.Composer Lajtha lászló with sons László Jr. and Ábel(on right) cca.1932- 7.Professor Albert Szent-Györgyi - 8.Dr. Ábel Lajtha (left) and Dr. László Lajtha with their mother in England, cca 1965 - 9.Abel with fellow scientists, 1960's - 10.As a founding member of the Friends of Hungary Foundation, Dr. Abel Lajtha is receiving an award of recognition from Péter Szijjártó, Minister of Economic and State Affairs

 

One rarely has a chance to write about father and son within three months.  The 125-year anniversary of the father’s birth was honored both in Hungary and in Magyar News Online in June, while the son is going to celebrate his 95th birthday on September 22nd, 2017.  The father, composer Lajtha László died before he was 70.  The son, Abel Lajtha, PhD, internationally known and revered neuroscientist and brain researcher, is fortunate enough having inherited his mother’s genes, thus is still active, living and working in New York.

In my youth I had the privilege of knowing the family.

Ábel, born in Budapest in 1922, and his older brother, László Jr. grew up in a comfortable, artistic middle-class home.  Their parents’ love for each other radiated into every facet of the family’s life.  The boys attended the esteemed Presbyterian High School (Református Gimnázium), a few blocks from their home.

Ábel had a rather clear vision about his interests.  In his senior year he visited his idol, Professor Szent-Györgyi Albert, telling him that he wanted to work with him, and asking his advice about what to study to achieve that goal.  The Nobel laureate suggested he should explore the sciences instead of medicine.

Szent-Györgyi himself was a most remarkable person.  Born in the last decade of the 19th century in Budapest, he came from an old family of the nobility and studied at the (now) Semmelweis University, interrupted by WW I in 1914, to serve as army medic.  Being a humanist, he hated war, thus, in 1916 he shot himself in the arm as if by enemy fire, and was sent home on medical leave.  This enabled him to finish his medical education and receive his MD in 1917.  He also married for the first time (out of four).

After the war, Szent-Györgyi worked at several universities internationally, focusing on the chemistry of cellular respiration.  In 1927, he received a PhD from Cambridge, for work on isolating “hexuronic acid” from adrenal gland tissue. While working at the University of Szeged, Hungary, he found that “hexuronic acid” was actually Vitamin C, with the formal chemical name of L-ascorbic acid, a long-needed medicine to combat scurvy, the malady of seamen.  The region’s famous paprika crops served as a rich source of Vitamin C.

In 1937, he received the Nobel Prize in Physiology/Medicine “for his discoveries in connection with the biological combustion processes, with special reference to vitamin C and the catalysis of fumaric acid”.  He offered all of his Nobel-prize money to Finland after that country’s brutal invasion by the Soviets.

During World War II, Szent-Györgyi joined the Hungarian resistance movement.

Though the country was fighting with the Axis Powers, in early 1944, Prime Minister Kállay sent him, under the guise of a scientific lecture, to Cairo, to begin secret negotiations with the Allies.  Hitler learned of this plot and had him arrested.  He escaped from house arrest and lived as a fugitive for two years.

After the war, he helped re-establish the Academy of Sciences and was elected a member of Parliament.  But being dissatisfied with the direction of politics in Hungary, he emigrated to the United States in 1947.  He worked mostly in his laboratory at Woods Hole, Massachusetts until his death in 1986.

Having taken the scenic route, let’s now return to our hero!…  

Similarly to his mentor, Lajtha Ábel also joined the resistance movement during World War II.  By doing this, he put himself in danger over and over.  By his own account, he had escaped death in his youth quite a few times.

Ábel and his companions wanted to prevent the blowing up of Budapest’s bridges in 1944 by attempting to remove the explosives the German occupiers, naively attempting to retard the advance of the Russians, had placed there.  The venture itself was, indeed, inherently dangerous, hugely aggravated by the presence of the Germans.  The leader of the resistance group was captured and, after being brutally beaten and tortured, led to the other members of the team.

When it came to Ábel’s interrogation, it turned out he should have been (but was not) enlisted.  He promised to report right after his health problem would be cleared, since he was complaining of some severe pain on the lower right side of his abdomen…He ate some toothpaste to induce high fever, then went to what seemed to promise the safest refuge: the university hospital.  There, due to lack of today’s routine pre-op testing and some cooperation by a surgeon who was a family friend, he had his – otherwise completely healthy – appendix surgically removed.  After a few days of recovery, he managed to escape from the hospital and found shelter in the basement of the Physiological Institute next door.

There, with several others, he found some anti-antillery grenades and other ammunition on the ready that they had no idea how to handle.  Meanwhile, the Russians had advanced and occupied Pest.  Ultimately, they provided expert assistance for the removal of the explosives which, if detonated, would have blown up the University.

After the Soviet occupation, life in the City was chaotic at best, with Russians stopping pedestrians, demanding their watches etc.  Disrobing people in the streets, for whatever reason by whomever was commonplace. Besides the historic post-wartime routine of raping women of all ages, worst was the rounding up of men whose fate was deportation to the Soviet Union.  Ábel was captured three times for various “tasks” (one of them was to build a bridge across the Danube from granite blocks harvested from the streets!!!) but had no intention of becoming their prey and a missing person.  Each time he managed to escape.  Thus he saved his skin and, by spring’s end, was able to finish his PhD.

Surviving the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”, in 1945 he began his scientific career at the Institute of Biochemistry in Budapest as a postdoctoral fellow  under Szent-Györgyi and continued working for him at the Zoological Institute in Naples, Italy, then in London as a Fellow of the Royal Institute of Great Britain.  In 1948, he rejoined his mentor’s Institute for Muscle Research at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts.

Dr. Lajtha worked there until 1950, when he decided to aim for the highest: to do research on the brain.  Szent-Györgyi tried to persuade him to choose a less complex organ for his focus but Abel was adamant.  He seized the opportunity to begin his work on the nervous system at Columbia University in New York City, on the blood-brain barrier and on brain protein metabolic studies.  This was the time neurochemistry as a discipline was just starting and he was a founding member of it.

In the course of his very involved professional life he met a very capable young lady, Marie, with whom Abel developed a genuinely meaningful friendship, leading to marriage.  His parents could not get a passport in Hungary to nearby Vienna to attend their wedding.  The marriage enriched his entire life, as Marie recognized, understood, and actively supported his dedication to science, and made sure that despite this commitment, their lives together would be very happy.  Their wedded bliss lasted 52 years, until her death.  They had two daughters and four grandchildren.

From here on, Lajtha’s incredible career embracing well over six decades was unstoppable.  The list of his achievements would exceed the limits of this article and the capacity of our non-scientific readers who would panic by and balk at words such as neuropsychopharmacology…  It included experimental psychiatric research, American and international professional honors, an honorary MD, over 600 publications, organizing and chairing numerous meetings and symposia including some in Hungary, presiding over the Research Foundation for Mental Hygiene, and chairing the International Review Board of the Nathan Kline Institute.  He collaborated with several scientists in Europe and Asia.  His research on addiction produced significant results.  Over the decades, his laboratory had many young scientists visiting and being trained, among them 40 from Hungary.

Lajtha’s “main interest remains brain proteins, membranes and receptors, their functions and their changes with drugs, pathology, cognitive and reward mechanisms, the dynamic turnover of brain proteins, transport systems of the blood-brain barrier, changes with aging in brain protein catabolism, and interacting neuroreceptors in cognitive and reward processes”.  (Excerpted from: Hungarian Scientists in the U.S.: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, Columbia University lecture program).

Quite a mouthful, isn’t it!?

Dr. Abel Lajtha has been always proud of his Hungarian education and heritage and visits his native country regularly.  He is one of the founding members of the Friends of Hungary Foundation, for which he received an award of recognition from Szijjártó Péter, Minister of Economic and State Affairs.

All his life Abel has been actively pursuing sports.  As a teenager, I was the lucky recipient of his ski instruction – he taught me the most important moves of the sport: how to fall safely and how to get up from a fall.  He continued skiing into his 80’s and still plays singles in tennis!

He loves to travel and is planning to spend his birthday in Switzerland, on a train between Zermatt and St. Moritz… His house in Westchester County, NY, where he has been living for over 30 years, is tucked away in a wooded hillside.  It is an eclectic treasure trove hiding a slew of antiques, from a several-hundred-year-old refectory table of a monastery to a thousand-year-old metal Chinese vase, from oriental statuettes to a Szent-Györgyi plaque.

To this day, Dr.Lajtha works four days a week at the Nathan Kline Institute, now doing administrative rather than laboratory work.  Belying his age, this tall nonagenarian is physically and mentally fit.  Referring to the progress of brain research, in a recent conversation he admitted that by today they managed to throw light on just about 5% of the “gray matter”; the rest is still in the gray area…  However, Lajtha’s own brain is a beacon shining over the sea of science, and the hope of discovering soon the remaining 95%…

Happy 95th, Abel!  Looking forward to celebrating you again at 100!

Olga Vállay Szokolay is an architect and Professor Emerita of Norwalk Community College, CT after three decades of teaching.  She is a member of the Editorial Board of Magyar News Online.

 


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