"To remain honest in whatever current historical situation", this statement was the cornerstone of János Szentágothai's career. Remaining faithful to his nation to the death, this ars poetica signatured the scientist's public activities all through. He lived through most of the war-and-dictatorship-stricken 20th century as a humanist of great literacy, a stance determining every action he took.

In the Parliament
Photo: MTA

János Szentágothai did not only hold to his "remaining honest" principle during trying times. He wanted more: to act with enthusiasm and integrity in order to create a better world to live in, whether this world is a small community of researchers, or the entire nation. He shared the thoughts of Apostle Jacob: "Therefore to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin" (James 4:17). He indeed did. Not only when he jeopardized his career or existence, but also when he risked his very life opposing an oppressing regime. Protesting against Nazism, he changed his originally Saxon surname Schimert to Szentágothai during World War II as a symbolic gesture. Later, during one of the most memorable and humiliating episodes of the Rákosi-era leading to the deprivation of medical doctor Kálmán Sántha of his membership at the Academy, Szentágothai was among the few daring to protest. "My wife was afraid to fall asleep for weeks, awaiting the grey Pobeda to take me to a devastating fate we started suspecting", Szentágothai recalled the period after he had stood up for his colleague in a speech in Parliament after the communist takeover of 1948.

The "Struggling Man of Literacy"
Photo: János Eifert

It was also the Parliament where the professor delivered his most famous political speech. In 1988, he voiced his opinions about the electric water plant to be built at Bős-Nagymaros, a highly controversial initiative that had become an emblematic political case of the time. He considered every aspect of this plan uncouth and urged the government to abandon it or at least postpone it for a long time. One of his main concerns was the confidential nature of the preparations. "I suffered an ugly defeat in Parliament", he concluded in his memoir evaluating the results of the voting. He was an active participant in the negotiations during the Change of 1989-1990, and he obtained a mandate at the elections of 1990 as a member of MDF (Hungarian Democratic Forum). While he adored the "charismatic braveness" of Prime Minister József Antall and highly respected the "scientific and political commitment" of the speaker of the Hungarian National Assembly György Szabad, he began to withdraw from legislation during the 1990-1994 parliamentarian term. He remained active however in leading several social organisations. Among others, he was a president of the Hungarian Protestant Association, the Hungarian Division of the Pan-European Union, and vice-president of the Hungarian Jewish-Christian Group.

During the break of the plenary session

"Therefore to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin", he remained faithful to this life-principle until his least years while he never ceased to serve his nation as a critical and struggling man of great literacy.

Source: Hungarian Academy of Sciences (mta.hu)