OBITUARY : Brun Straub

Brun Straub was one of the most familiar public faces of science in Hungary for over 30 years. But few of his compatriots would have expected that he would also play a walk-on part in Hungary's turbulent political history. He did so briefly when he took on the almost entirely ceremonial post of head of state in 1988 in the twilight era of Hungarian Communism. An amateur politician, he was at the time the only non-Communist president in Eastern Europe.

Straub was born in Nagyvrad (now Oradea in Romania) in 1914. He was educated at a Piarist grammar school and then at the Szeged University of Sciences in south-east Hungary. He carried out his initial research in the mid-1930s under Hungary's best-known biochemist, Albert Szent-Gyogyi, the recipient of the 1937 Nobel Prize for Medicine for his work in isolating ascorbic acid to produce vitamin C.

After a two-year stint on a Rockefeller scholarship at Cambridge, Straub returned to Szeged University in 1939 first as a research fellow and then as a member of the teaching staff. He concentrated his research on the production and structure of enzymes, the functioning of muscles and the synthesis of proteins.

His greatest scientific achievement came in 1941 with the discovery of how actin, which along with myosin proteins constitutes muscle fibres, controls muscle contraction. For this and his other scientific achievements he was twice in the 1950s awarded the Kossuth Prize, Hungary's highest award for intellectual achievement.

In the late 1940s Straub joined the Budapest University of Medicine. He became a prolific author in the 1950s, publishing several monographs and university textbooks. He also began a successful career as an administrator. From the 1960s onwards there were few institutes or committees in Hungary in the field of biochemistry that did not at some time come under his supervision.

He was an outstanding organiser. His pragmatism and his network of contacts in the Communist establishment helped him push through decisions that benefited many fellow-scientists in Hungary.

The greatest success of his lobbying endeavours was the establishment of the Szeged Biological Centre in 1970. It was a response to the revolution in biology following the discovery of DNA and under Straub, its founding director, the centre acquired international renown.

Unusually, Straub gave whole-hearted support to young researchers, valuing talent above reputation. And instead of transforming the centre into a lifelong sinecure, he left it in 1978 to become head of the less prestigious Enzymological Institute in Budapest.

But Straub continued at the top of Hungary's scientific hier-archy. He completed two stints as Vice-President of the Academy of Sciences and, thanks to his interest in the use of isotopes for biological research, became deputy chairman of the National Atomic Energy Committee.

Throughout, he remained 100 per cent loyal to the relatively benign Communist regime of Jnos Kdr, who ruled Hungary for over three decades after the crushing of the 1956 uprising. Straub was a leading member of the privileged intellectual establishment that had benefits showered on it by the authorities.

His position in that hierarchy was highlighted when he was elected a member of Hungary's rubber-stamp parliament in 1985 on an uncontested national list reserved for 35 prestigious candidates. The absurdity of the system was revealed when - along with leading Communist officials and the cream of Hungary's fellow-travelling intellectuals - Straub received over 99 per cent of the votes cast.

The predictability of his election to parliament could not have prepared anyone for the shock three years later when he was elected President of Hungary's collective head of state, the Presidential Council. That was in June 1988, a month after Kdr was ousted from the leading post of the Communist Party - known as the Hungarian Socialist Workers' Party (HSWP). The new leadership of the HSWP had embarked on a policy of radical reform which was to lead over the next two years to the dismantling of the Communist regime itself.

Straub was picked to become head of state in place of a hardline HSWP official, Kroly Nemeth, on the grounds that he was a non-Communist and a public figure with a nationwide reputation for his scientific achievements. In fact, he had always been loyal to the Communist regime, and he had even belonged to the HSWP's predecessor before 1956, in the darkest days of Stalinism.

But the elderly academician carried out his duties in a dignified way. He was present at a number of historic occasions. He welcomed George Bush to Hungary in June 1989 when the American President pledged for the first time financial aid to Hungary (and Poland) to help its transition to democracy and a market economy.

Straub stepped down as head of state in October 1989 when the Communist- era Presidential Council was abolished by a new transitional constitution.

After the multi-party elections of 1990 that ousted the reformed Communists from power, Straub, like other prominent public figures associated with the former regime, was pushed into the background. By then he had retired from his scientific posts, though for a while he visited the institutes where he had earlier worked, encouraging younger scientists.

Brun Straub was fond of quoting the Bible. Among his recurring biblical allusions was "Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's."

Brun Ferenc Straub, biochemist and head of state: born Nagyvrad, Hungary 5 January 1914; Director, Szeged Biological Centre 1970-78; Vice-President, Hungarian Academy of Sciences 1967-73, 1985-90; President of the Presidential Council, 1988-89; married 1940 Erzsebet Lichtneckert (died 1967), 1972 Gertrud Szabolcsi (died 1993; two daughters); died Budapest 15 February 1996.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Ashdown Group: Human Resources Manager

£28000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: A successful organisation...

Recruitment Genius: Internal Recruiter - Manufacturing

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Internal Recruiter (manufact...

Ashdown Group: HR Manager (CIPD) - Barking / East Ham - £50-55K

£50000 - £55000 per annum + 25 days holidays & benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Man...

Recruitment Genius: Operations / Project Manager

£40000 - £48000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This software company specialis...

Day In a Page

Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones