In the last installment of Famous Praguers, we looked at some of the great creative minds of the city, who have influenced the entire world with their stories, plays, and works of art.
But Prague’s legacy extends far beyond the world of creativity, and has been home to some of the most important scientific advancements and discoveries of all time.
Charles University has one of the most illustrious histories of any educational institute, and throughout history it has drawn some of the most brilliant minds in the academic world to Prague.
So much has been achieved from within the boundaries of the city that it would be impossible to chronicle them all in just one post – but we’ll take a look at some of the more prominent ones here.
J. E. Purkynĕ
Jan Evangelista Purkynĕ, born in the Kingdom of Bohemia in 1787, was far more than just a respected scientist (although he was pretty good at that). He was also a champion of the Czech language and Czech culture, and fought hard to ensure that the sciences remained within reach of ordinary people.
Purkynĕ himself came from a humble background, and was fortunate to be enrolled in a monastery at an early age due to his musical talent. This gave him the opportunity to receive a good education, and bestowed in him a lifelong desire to help those who weren’t from privileged backgrounds. From his early schooling he moved into science, studying Medicine at Charles University.
He didn’t spend his whole life in Prague, instead teaching for most of his career in (what is now) Wroclaw, Poland. He contributed so much to his various fields that it’s hard to know where to begin, but here are some of his career highlights:
He discovered Purkinje fibres – important tissues which play a crucial role in the mechanism of the human heart.
He is also credited with discovering the Purkinje shift – how the eye responds differently to different coloured light.
He established the world’s first ever department of Physiology.
Alongside these remarkable achievements, Purkynĕ also worked endlessly to ensure that the Czech language was used in academia and teaching. Most of the universities at that time taught in German, which made them inaccessible to most Czechs – but Purkynĕ turned that around.
A fervent Czech nationalist, he did much to put his region (at the time it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire) on the map. He is remembered as an engaging and passionate teacher, and one of the most prominent scientific minds of his time.
The search for the cure to HIV and AIDS has been one of the most challenging scientific journeys of the last century.
Sadly, these conditions remain incurable, although medical advances have meant that many of today’s sufferers are able to live healthy, normal lives with their illness kept mostly under control.
This is – in no small part – thanks to Antonin Holý, a Czech chemist who devoted his career to developing drugs for the treatment of HIV and AIDS, among many other illnesses.
Born in Prague in 1936, Holý studied at Charles University and embarked from there on his scientific career. He worked his way up through the ranks, and after the Velvet Revolution he began teaching.
His drug Viread has been used to treat AIDS for more than a decade, and Truvada has been instrumental in the treatment and prevention of HIV and Hepatitis B.
Holý died in 2012 after a battle with a long illness, shortly after Truvada was approved by the FDA for use in America. Although it doesn’t cure the illness, it works as a preventative measure for those who are deemed at risk of infection (such as people with HIV positive partners). As a result, it has transformed the lives of countless people.
In addition to his work in the HIV/AIDS field, Holý is also credited with more than 400 other scientific discoveries.
Although he was born in Prague, Carl Cori moved to Trieste, Italy, as a young child. He later returned to his city of birth, where he studied at Charles University (there’s a theme developing here…).
During his career, Cori would make several contributions to the world of biology, the most prominent of which being the discovery of how glycogen is used in the body to store and provide energy.
The research that led to this was done alongside his wife Gerty and colleague Bernardo Houssay, and was the result of many years of work. For their discovery, the trio were awarded a Nobel Prize in 1947.
Cori spent much of his career, and the later part of his life, in the USA. However, it must not be forgotten that he spent his early years and the beginning of his education in Prague.
OK…so this one isn’t REALLY a Prague citizen, but surely the most prominent scientific figure of all time deserves a mention. Plus, he is relevant to Prague.
Einstein, despite being born in Germany, spent a year working at Charles University in 1911, where he wrote eleven scientific works and made important steps forward in his career.
He never returned to live in Prague, spending his life in various countries and eventually becoming an American citizen. Still, it’s always good to remember that one of the most exceptional minds of the 20th century spent some of the most formative years of his life in Prague.
And by the way the recent TV series about Einstein called ‘Genius’ was actually shot in Prague!
These are just some of the many great scientists to have spent their lives and careers in Prague. The city’s rich tradition of academia and innovation continues to this day, and who knows what brilliant minds are yet to emerge from this place…