Prague, Czech Republic – From turn-of-the-century pacifist activism to groundbreaking scientific discoveries whose impact can still be felt today, here’s a brief look at the five Czech Nobel Prize laureates in history.
Bertha von Suttner – Nobel Peace Prize (1905)
Born in Prague in 1843 a member of the prestigious artistocratic house of Kinsky, Bertha von Suttner was a Bohemian-Austrian activist and writer who, in 1905, became the second woman in history to receive a Nobel Prize (after Marie Curie two years before) and the first woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Although dreaming to make a career as an opera singer, Suttner started publishing her first short fiction works in the 1860’s. She spent most of her childhood and early adulthood travelling with her mother and a dedicated guardian in an aristocratic milieu marked by distinctive militaristic traditions. Aged 30, she moved to Vienna to take up a position as a teacher-companion, then briefly became the private secretary in Paris of Alfred Nobel – with whom she maintained a close relationship during their entire life.
She then spent nine years in the Caucasus region with her husband, Baron Arthur Gundaccar von Suttner whom she had met in Vienna, before returning to Austria. During all that time, she continued publishing and became increasingly active in pacifist circles – these two aspects of her life becoming increasingly intertwined over the years, as exemplified by her famous 1889 anti-militarist novel Lay Down Your Arms. She was also the editor of the pacifist journal Die Waffen Nieder, initiated and chaired the Austrian Peace Society and took part to the founding of many other such institutions throughout Europe.
By the time she received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1905, Bertha von Suttner was widely recognized as one of the most prominent voices of the pacifist movement in Europe. In an ominous turn of events, she died in June 1914, just a week before the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and two months before the outbreak of the war she had so actively warned against. Today, the Bertha von Suttner Peace Institute in the Hague continues to promote the ideals and values that guided her life.
Gerty and Carl Cori – Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (1947)
Husband and wife Carl and Gerty Cori were a Czech-American couple who jointly won the 1947 Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology.
Born in 1896 in Prague the daughter of a Jewish businessman, Gerty Theresa Cori (born Radnitz) was home-schooled until the age of 10 and then attended a girls’ preparatory school at a time when women who wanted to study in scientific fields were still highly marginalized. She enrolled at the German University of Prague in 1914, where she met her future husband, Carl Cori.
Born on the same year in Prague in a Roman Catholic family, Carl Ferdinand Cori spent his early childhood in Trieste and eventually came back to his native country to study at the German University of Prague, where he met Gerty. They got married in 1920 shortly after finishing their studies and getting their medical degrees.
The professional and prolific scientific collaboration between husband and wife started during their study years and endured throughout their entire life. After the war, they moved to Vienna and, in 1922, emigrated to the United States, where they were naturalized in 1928. Their research positions first brought them to Buffalo and then at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri.
In 1947, the Coris jointly received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine “for their discovery of the course of the catalytic conversion of glycogen”, along with Argentinian scientist Bernardo Alberto Houssay. Gerty thus became the third woman to receive a Nobel Prize in science, the first American woman to receive a Nobel Prize in general and the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
While Gerty Cori died ten years later at the age of 61, Carl remarried in 1960 and held several positions at Harvard Medical School and the Massachusetts General Hospital. He died in 1984 at the age of 87.
Jaroslav Heyrovsky – Nobel Prize in Chemistry (1959)
Born in Prague in then-Austria-Hungary in 1890, Jaroslav Heyrovsky was a Czech scientist, chemist and inventor and recipient of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1959 for his groundbreaking work and research in the field of polarography, an instrumental method of chemical analysis that became widespread following his discovery in 1922.
After studying at Charles University in Prague as well as University College in London, Heyrovsky worked in a military hospital during World War I and started his academic career as assistant professor shortly after the war. Widely considered as the father of the polarographic method, he remained at the forefront of this new branch of electro-chemistry throughout his entire career and became director of the newly-established Polarographic Institute in 1950, which was incorporated into the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences a few years later.
Apart from the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, which he received in 1959 “for his discovery and development of the polarographic methods of analysis”, Heyrovsky received numerous awards and honorary doctorates from leading universities and academic centres in Czechoslovakia and around the world. Although an “only” one-time laureate, the Czech chemist was actually nominated a total of 18 times for a Nobel Prize (14 times for chemistry, three times for physiology or medicine and once for physics).
According to Professor Jiri Barek, “the methods are experimental procedures of scientific research introduced by Heyrovsky are still in use in various nanotechnologies, biochemistry and other natural and medical sciences”. Jaroslav Heyrovsky passed away in 1967 and is buried at the Vysehrad cemetery in Prague, known for being the resting place of many notable Czech public and historical figures.
Jaroslav Seifert – Nobel Prize in Literature (1984)
Born in Prague in 1901 in a working-class family, Jaroslav Seifert is the only writer and poet from former Czechoslovakia to have ever received the Nobel Prize in Literature.
With his first collection of poems published in 1921, Seifert was early on recognized as a prominent representative of the artistic avant-garde, became an active member of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia until 1929, when he was expelled for his criticism of the party’s Bolshevik tendencies and started working as a journalist until the late 1940’s close to social-democratic and trade-unionist circles.
His relations with the Communist party progressively deteriorated in the post-war period, including around the times of the events of 1956 and 1968. Although his poems were regularly blacklisted and he was one of the signatories of the Charter 77, he never truly became an active member of the Prague and Czechoslovak dissident scene.
Recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1984 “for his poetry which endowed with freshness, sensuality and rich inventiveness provides a liberating image of the indomitable spirit and versatility of man”, Seifert was however unable to travel to Stockholm to receive the award due to bad health, having suffered a heart attack the year before. A highly-revered writer in his home country, including for his famous love poems known by generations of Czechs, he was barely known abroad at the time he received the Nobel Prize. Jaroslav Seifert died two years later, in 1986, at the age of 84.