The Man Who Discovered Vitamin C

This week we celebrate Albert Szent-Györgyi, who was born on September 16, 1893.  The Hungarian physiologist is credited with discovering vitamin C (L-ascorbic acid), for which he won the Nobel Prize in 1937.  But his life story is just as remarkable as his scientific discovery.

Szent-Györgyi can thank famed musician Gustav Mahler for his very existence.  His mother aspired to become an opera singer, but Mahler told her she wasn’t good enough and recommended she get married instead.

Albert himself studied anatomy until he was drafted into World War I as a medic.  Disgusted with the war, he shot himself in the arm so he could be sent home to complete his medical education.  But he remained politically active.  During the Second World War, he offered his Nobel Prize money to Finland to help that country fight the Soviet invasion.

Szent-Györgyi became active in the Hungarian resistance, using his wealth to help his Jewish friends escape the country.  The Hungarian prime minister sent him on a covert mission – under the guise of a scientific lecture in Cairo – to secretly negotiate with the Allies.  When Adolf Hitler found out, he personally issued a warrant for Szent-Györgyi’s arrest.  The physiologist spent the rest of the war hiding from the Nazi Gestapo.

After the war, many supported Szent-Györgyi for Hungary’s presidency, but he disliked the Communist regime.  He emigrated to American in 1947, where he established the National Foundation for Cancer Research.  Still politically active, at the age of 74 he refused to pay his taxes to protest the U.S. war in Vietnam.

Today, vitamin C is recognized as an essential nutrient for human growth and development.  It heals wounds, repairs tissues, acts as an antioxidant, and helps prevent scurvy.  (Whether vitamin C helps prevent or cure the common cold remains open to debate.)

The pharmaceutical and food industries use Agilent technologies to separate, analyze and measure vitamin C, including Agilent GCs, LCs, HPLCs and columns.

Researchers in the UK and Japan used an Agilent GC-MS Q-TOF to study vitamin C production during plant photosynthesis.  Researchers in the U.S. used Agilent qPCR solutions to study vitamin C’s properties in healing wounds.

Researchers in Korea used an Agilent HPLC to study vitamin C’s antioxidant properties against persistent organic pollutants.  And researchers in Canada are using an Agilent UV-vis spectrophotometer to improve the topical delivery of vitamin C in cosmetic and skincare products.

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