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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

HR Advisor - North London / North West London

£30000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Advisor - North London...

Finance Manager - Recruitment Business (Media & Entertainment)

£28000 - £32000 per annum + negotiable: Sauce Recruitment: We have an exciting...

HR Advisor - North London / North West London

£30000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Advisor - North London...

HR Advisor - North London / North West London

£30000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Advisor - North London...

Day In a Page

Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album
Hugh Bonneville & Peter James: 'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'

How We Met: Hugh Bonneville & Peter James

'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's heavenly crab dishes don't need hours of preparation

Bill Granger's heavenly crab recipes

Scared off by the strain of shelling a crab? Let a fishmonger do the hard work so you can focus on getting the flavours right
Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

After a remarkable conversion from reckless defender to prolific striker, Monaco's ace says he wants to make his loan deal at Old Trafford permanent
Terry Venables: Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England

Terry Venables column

Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England
The Inside Word: Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past

Michael Calvin's Inside Word

Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past