Today’s post is from my friend Mila Rechcígl, Jr. It is actually entitled “Czech Contributions to American Scientific and Technological Thought” and it appears as a chapter in his book, Czechs and Slovaks in America. I never cease to be amazed at the vast amount of Czech contribution to the world. I always get a bit frustrated when I am researching Czech contributions and I see prominent Czechs listed as German, Austrian, or Hungarian when they were born in Czech cities. Most are not aware of their contributions because for so many years information stayed behind the iron curtain as well. But, on to Mila’s interesting article…
Except for a few rather general and journalistic attempts to show that some Czech Americans also worked in professional and cultural fields, there has not been any serious effort to date to evaluate their contributions to American science and technology (1, 2). This is a completely unplowed field if not a Terra incognita.
The present study attempts to overview the contributions of American immigrants and their descendants from the territory of former Czechoslovakia to biological and physical sciences and engineering – from the early days following the discovery of the New World to the midst of the twentieth century.
Czech Contributions to American Scientific and Technological Thought
All evidence seems to indicate that the first visitors from the territory of former Czechoslovakia (3) in the Western Hemisphere (4) were sent to the New World because of their particular technical or scientific skills. This was the case of the anonymous group of the Jáchymov miners who were dispatched prior to 1528 to Little Naples (present Venezuela) in an effort to establish the silver mines, while in the employ of the banking house of the Welser family (5).
When Latin America was opened for missionary work to Bohemian Jesuits (6), in the second half of the 17th century, a good half of the missionaries comprised skilled craftsmen and various professionals, including scientists(7). The most important among them was Valentin Stansel (1621-1705), a professor of rhetoric and mathematics at Olomouc and Prague.
He came to Brazil in 1656 where he was attached to the Jesuit College and Seminary of San Salvador (Bahia) and where he filled the position of Professor of Moral Theology and later Superior. He was also an astronomer of note who made extensive observations, particularly on comets, the results of which he published under the assumed name of Estancel(8).
Another noted Jesuit, Samuel Fritz (1654-1728) came from Trutnov, Bohemia as a missionary to Quito. He was an excellent geographer and cartographer who undertook, in a primitive pirogue, a daring expedition down the Amazon to Para, where he was captured and imprisoned for two years on the suspicion of being a Spanish spy. Although only imperfectly equipped with the necessary instruments, he completed a comparatively accurate chart of the river course. This was the first correct chart of the Maranon territory. Fritz’s map was extensively reprinted, most recently in Madrid in 1892, on the occasion of the fourth centenary of the discovery of America (9).
The first documented case of the entry of a Bohemian on the North American shores is that of Joachim Gans of Prague, who came to Roanoke, North Carolina in 1585 with the expedition of explorers, organized by Sir Walter Raleigh (1552-1618). He was a scientist of some note.
He was a metallurgist who mastered the skills of dressing and smelting copper. Master Youngham“, as he was called by the English, was held in considerable esteem by his fellow colonists, which is not altogether surprising, considering his unique skills and the fact that one of the goals of the expedition was to search for promising deposits of precious metals (10).
Interestingly, the first Bohemian who permanently settled in America was also an individual of scientific training and background. He was Augustine Heřman (1621-1686), who by his own account, was a native of Prague in the Kingdom of Bohemia, and who for sentimental reasons always signed his name as Augustine Herman Bohemiensis.
He was a surveyor and skilled cartographer, a successful planter and developer of new lands, a shrewd and enterprising merchant, a bold politician, an eloquent and effective diplomat, and fluent in a number of languages. He was clearly one of the most conspicuous and powerful personalities of 17th-century Colonial America. One of his greatest achievements was his celebrated map of Maryland and Virginia, commissioned by Lord Baltimore, which took ten years to complete. Lord Baltimore was so pleased with the map that he rewarded Heřman with a large estate, named Heřman Bohemia Manor,“ and the hereditary title Lord (11).
The last pioneer to be mentioned here was a bona fide scientist, whose name may be recognizable to some readers, i.e., Thaddaeus Haenke (1761-1817), a native of Chribske, Bohemia. This noted botanist and explorer made numerous trips along the coast of South America, Central America, and North America, to Alaska, across the Pacific to Marianna, the Philippines, the east coast of Australia, and Tonga Archipelago to Callao (1789-94).
He commenced to cross South America from Lima, Peru to Buenos Aires, Argentina, and settled in Cochabamba, Bolivia in 1796. He collected flora in Guam, explored regions in internal South America, collected and described plants and their significance to agriculture, medicine, and technology in Cochabamba, and was the initiator of the Chilean saltpeter industry (potassium nitrate) (12).
The Modern Period
With the onset of mass migration in the second half of the 19th century, thousands and thousands of emigrants from the Czechlands came to the US, seeking better economic conditions, and many of them also tried to avoid the military draft. Most of these emigrants were of humble origin with limited schooling and had to do most menial jobs to support their families. Being of the old school“, they believed in the importance of education and put most of their savings into the education of their children. It is not surprising therefore to find a relatively large number of college graduates in the first generation Czech Americans, some of whom have attained a high degree of prominence in various fields of human endeavor, including science (13).
Following the establishment of independent Czechoslovakia in 1918 the mass migration practically stopped. A renewed limited emigration, particularly from the Czechlands, was precipitated by the Nazi onslaught in 1938, followed by a large exodus of refugees after the communist coup in 1948, and again in 1968, when the liberalized Dubcek regime was crushed. These migration waves were largely political and included a high proportion of professionals and intellectuals. Some of the best Czech and Slovak scientists and engineers came to the U.S. at that time, where they continued their distinguished careers(14, 15).
Biological and Medical Sciences
Among the first medical scientists born on the territory of today’s Czech Republic, who made a name for himself in the U.S., was Carl Koller (1857-1944). He was a native of Sušice, and came to the U.S. in 1876. He specialized in ophthalmology and is known for his discovery of cocaine as a local anesthetic.
Koller’s major discovery was epoch-making for ophthalmic surgery as was the discovery of ether for general surgery, thus inaugurating an era of local anesthesia for operations in the various branches of medicine and surgery (16).
Another case of a successful native Czech who attained prominence as a medical specialist in the U.S. was Aleš Hrdlička (1869- 1943). He was a native of Humpolec, Bohemia, and emigrated to New York City at the age of fourteen. After obtaining his medical degree, he continued his studies in physical anthropology and eventually became a curator of the American Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
He published his major theory on the Neanderthal Phase of Man in 1927 in which he sought to prove that all human races had a common origin. This work brought him the Huxley Medal of the Royal Anthropological Institute. Among his wide range of interests, he became an expert on the Eskimos and the Indians of North America, and the Indians of Central America. Leaning upon ethnography, paleology and linguistics, he formulated the theory, elucidated in his The Question of Ancient Man in America“ (1937), that America had been peopled from Asia via the Bering Strait.
His great influence on American physical anthropology is indicated by his role as the founder of the American Journal of Physical Anthropology and as the founder and the first President of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (17).
A successful first-generation Czech American, Frederick George Novy (1864-1957), whose father, a tailor, and mother, a milliner, emigrated from Bohemia to the U.S. in 1864. Novy became one of the pioneers in bacteriology in the U.S.
In 1869 he initiated a course at the University of Michigan that may well have been the first systematic laboratory instruction in bacteriology offered at an American medical school. Novy devoted a significant amount of attention to anaerobic bacteria and developed an apparatus for the cultivation and study of these organisms, the Novy Jar, an anaerobic culture method in which the air is removed by a vacuum pump and is replaced by an inert gas, such as nitrogen. In 1884 he discovered and isolated the organism now known as Clostridium novyi, a species of gas gangrene bacillus (18).
Novy was probably best known for his extensive studies on trypanosomas and spirochetes, and he was apparently the first to cultivate a pathogenic protozoan (trypanosome) in an artificial medium. Spirochaeta novyi, the organism that causes the American variety of relapsing fever, was discovered in his lab in 1906. Novy’s strong commitment to truth and to meticulous scientific work was immortalized in the person of Max Gottlieb in Sinclair Lewis’s novel Arrowsmith. Paul de Kruif, one of Novy’s students, served as a technical adviser to Lewis on the book and helped to create the character of Gottlieb.
Another successful first-generation Czech American was Simon Flexner (1867-1946), the fourth child of Moritz Flexner, a poor, industrious, and energetic country peddler of Všeruby, Bohemia, who immigrated to U.S. in 1848. After the completion of his medical studies, he became affiliated with the Johns Hopkins Medical School, where he reached full professor rank in 1899. During his stay at the Philippines Islands, which were just then acquired by the U.S., he isolated an organism that causes a prevalent form of dysentery. This Bacillus (now called Shiggela) dysentericus is still commonly known as the Flexner bacillus. When the bubonic plague broke out in California in 1901, within a month, Flexner succeeded in demonstrating the presence of the plague bacillus. His detailed report aided health authorities in eradicating the disease.
In 1901, John D. Rockefeller, and his son John D. Jr., were planning the creation of the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research in New York City. Flexner, by this time (age 38) was beginning to be internationally known and was appointed to the Institute’s Board of Scientific Directors. A year later, he was chosen to head a department of pathology and bacteriology in the Institute, and soon after, he established himself as head of the whole institution. To combat an epidemic of cerebral spinal meningitis, Flexner, in 1906, produced a serum that remained the best treatment until the sulfa drugs were introduced. In 1900, when poliomyelitis was epidemic in New York, he and his associates were the first to transfer the virus from monkey to monkey, paving the way for the eventual preparation of the protective vaccines in the late 1950s (19).
He had six brothers and two sisters, most of whom became prominent in their own right, particularly his brother Abraham Flexner (1865-1959). His analytical and comparative study, published under the title, The American Colleges and Medical Education in the U.S. and Canada,“ made him the most respected educational authority and reformer in the U.S. The latter study, known as Flexner Report,“ was a basis for a major overhaul of the entire American medical education system (20).
Abraham Flexner had a great admiration for the free and relaxed academic atmosphere, highly conducive to the pursuit of knowledge, which was characteristic of many European universities. He envisaged the foundation of a small academic center along these lines in America, where scholars could concentrate undisturbed on pure learning. This objective was realized in 1930 with the establishment of the Institute of Advanced Study at Princeton, of which he became the first director. It is my understanding that the recently created Institute of Advanced Theoretical Studies in Prague may have been patterned after the Flexner’s Institute at Princeton (20).
Successful medical researchers of Czech descent were, by no means, limited to men. Among the most prominent female medical specialists of Bohemian descent was Helen Brooke Taussig (1898- 1986), who is credited for founding pediatric cardiology. After gaining her medical degree from Johns Hopkins University, she became the head of a heart clinic in Baltimore. In addition, she taught at Johns Hopkins University from 1930 to 1963, becoming a full professor in 1959.
She began studying babies whose congenital birth defects resulted in inadequate oxygenation of their blood, and she pioneered in using of fluoroscopy and x-ray to study such defects, pinpointing the particular heart malformation. Taussig also devised a surgical treatment for infants born with blue baby syndrome“ and her new operation subsequently saved literally thousands of blue babies“ from dying. In 1962-63 she played a key role in alerting American physicians to the dangers of thalidomide, a drug whose use had produced large numbers of deformed newborns in Europe. Her prompt actions prevented a recurrence of the tragedy in the U.S. itself (21).
Among naturalists, several first-generation Czech Americans gained recognition. Bohumil Shimek (1861-1937) was a botanist who held a professorial rank at the University of Iowa. He was also a herbarium curator and Director of the Lakeside Biological Laboratory.
In 1911 he was elected Vice President of the American Association for Advancement of Science and in 1914 he was named an honorary chairman of the geological section of the International Scientific Congress in Prague.
He was a prolific writer, having written over 160 scientific papers (22, 23).
Another biological scientist of Czech ancestry was Charles Zelený (1878-1939). He was a zoologist and held the position of full professor and head of the department at the University of Illinois. He specialized in experimental zoology, especially embryology, regeneration, and genetics (24)
The greatest prominence among biologists of Czech descent in the U.S. was attained by a husband-wife team, Carl F. Cori (1896- 1984) and Gerty F. Radnitz Cori (1896-1957), both natives of Prague.
They were jointly awarded the 1947 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine for their discovery of the course of the catalytic conversion of glycogen to glucose.
Their work was described as one of the most brilliant achievements in modern biochemistry and the one responsible for a new conception of how hormones and enzymes cooperate (25).
Kytka’s 3 additions to this list:
Stanislav “Stan” Grof (born July 1, 1931), a Czech-born psychiatrist living in the United States since the 1960s. Grof is one of the principal developers of transpersonal psychology and research into the use of non-ordinary states of consciousness for purposes of exploring, healing, and obtaining growth and insights into the human psyche. Grof is known, in scientific circles, for his early studies of LSD and its effects on the psyche—the field of psychedelic therapy.
Building on his observations while conducting LSD research and on Otto Rank’s theory of birth trauma, Grof constructed a theoretical framework for prenatal and perinatal psychology and transpersonal psychology in which LSD trips and other powerfully emotional experiences were mapped onto a person’s early fetal and neonatal experiences. Over time, this theory developed into what Grof called a “cartography” of the deep human psyche. Following the suppression of legal LSD use in the late 1960s, Grof went on to develop a theory that many states of mind could be explored without drugs by using certain breathing techniques. He continues this work as of 2015 under the trademark “Holotropic Breathwork”.
Sigmund Freud (1856 – 1939) was a neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis, a clinical method for evaluating and treating pathologies in the psyche through dialogue between a patient and a psychoanalyst. Freud may justly be called the most influential intellectual legislator of his age. His creation of psychoanalysis was at once a theory of the human psyche, a therapy for the relief of its ills, and an optic for the interpretation of culture and society. Despite repeated criticisms, attempted refutations, and qualifications of Freud’s work, its spell remained powerful well after his death and in fields far removed from psychology as it is narrowly defined. If, as the American sociologist Philip Rieff once contended, “psychological man” replaced such earlier notions as political, religious, or economic man as the 20th century’s dominant self-image, it is in no small measure due to the power of Freud’s vision and the seeming inexhaustibility of the intellectual legacy he left behind. Freud revolutionized how we think about and treat mental health conditions. Freud founded psychoanalysis as a way of listening to patients and better understanding how their minds work.
Carl Heinrich Auspitz (1835-1886) was a dermatologist. Trained at the University of Vienna, he specialized in dermatology and syphilis. He was part of the so-called Vienna School of Dermatology, and studied and worked with several eminent physicians of the time. A pioneer in tissue pathology, he described the pinpoint bleeding on the removal of a psoriasis scale that bears his name: “Auspitz’s sign”. In 1885 he published an article involving mycosis fungoides titled “Ein Fall von Granuloma fungoides (Mycosis fungoides Alibert)”. Together with Philipp Josef Pick (1834-1910), he founded first German-language magazine for dermatology, the “Archiv für Dermatologie und Syphilis” (1869).
Physical Sciences and Engineering
In the realm of physical sciences and related technical fields, initially, engineers seemed to have an upper edge. It is of interest that the first concrete arch bridge in America was designed by Prof. J. Melan from Prague.
He introduced the stiff reinforcement, serving partly as the center wing of the bridge. This economic principle was used in a long series of concrete arch bridges in America, such as the Capellan Bridge over the Mississippi River, with its 400 ft. span of the center arch, was the second largest in America at that time (26).
One of the foremost engineers in all facets of reinforced concrete was Frederick Ignaz Emperger (1862-1942) of Prague. Apart from his pioneering work on reinforced concrete engineering, he designed bridges, skyscrapers, and industrial plants (27). V. Tesař, educated in Prague, was known to every American experimental stress analyst for his fundamental discoveries and research in photo elasticity especially his optical method of analyzing stresses. F. Klokner was known for his research on the plastic flow of concrete (28), while A. Cibulka was the inventor of reinforced steel timber structures which considerably reduced the cost of bridges and hangers in the post-war period.
Gustav Lindenthal (1850-1935), a graduate of the Brno Polytechnic when he reached the age of forty, established his reputation as one of the great bridge engineers of America.
He is best known for the construction of the Queensboro Bridge, connecting Long Island and New York City, and the Hell Gate Bridge, which connects the railroads of the Bronx with Long Island. Lindenthal’s designs differed greatly from his American contemporaries and were characterized by originality and boldness (29).
In the area of civil engineering gained distinction Karl Terzaghi (1883-1963), a native of Prague, was the founder of the new branch of civil engineering science, known as soil mechanics. He settled permanently in the U.S. in 1925 where he was associated with the faculty of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
In 1929 he accepted the newly created Chair of Soil Mechanics at the Vienna Technical University. In 1938 he returned to the U.S. and served as a Professor of Civil Engineering at Harvard University from 1946 until his retirement in 1956 (30).
Another engineer, Karl Arnstein (1887-1974), originally from Prague, specialized in the design and construction of airships. He drew plans and supervised the construction of some 70 zeppelin airships and stratosphere balloons, among them the famous airship Los Angeles“, the first to cross the Atlantic.
In 1924, he piloted it on its first 81-hour flight across the Atlantic Ocean to America. Arnstein was chief engineer and Vice President of Goodyear-Zeppelin Corp., based in Akron, Ohio (31).
Louis Bernard Levy (1846-1919), a native of Štěnovice, Bohemia, who lived in the U.S. from his ninth year, invented a photo-chemical engraving process, known as the Levytype“, which he patented in 1875. His brother Max Levy (1857-1926) was the inventor of the screen process in half-tone reproductions, which had worldwide success in the graphic art industries. The latter also patented the hemocytometer, a microscopic measuring machine used in blood counting (32).
Louis Edward Levy (1846-1919) and Max Levy (1857-1926) Levytype Company
Of world renown among engineers was Karl Jansky (1905-1950), a grandson of a Bohemian immigrant. His discovery of radio waves from an extraterrestrial source inaugurated the development of radio astronomy, a new science that from the mid-20th century greatly extended the range of astronomical observations.
After he joined the Bell Telephone Labs, he was assigned to track down the various forms of interference that were plaguing telephone communications. Using a linear directional antenna, which he built himself, he was able to identify all the sources of interference except one. After months of careful study, he discovered that the source of the radio interference lay in the direction of the constellation Sagittarius, which was later established at the direction of the center of the Milky Way Galaxy.
In honor of Jansky’s epoch-making discovery, the unit of radio-wave emission strength was named the Ajansky (33).
In the field of astronomy, a distinction was attained by Fritz Zwicky (1898-1974), whose mother was a Czech and his father a Swiss. He was a physicist trained at the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. In 1925 he went to the California Institute of Technology and served there as a faculty member until 1968. From 1943 to 1961 he was also the research director and then a research consultant at Aerojet Engineering in Pasadena and from 1948 an astronomer at the Mount Wilson and Palomar Observatories. In 1933 he proposed that the bright novas, which he named supernovas“, occur once in a millennium in typical galaxies, and that they signal the transformation of ordinary stars into Aneutron stars“, and that they give rise to cosmic rays.
In 1937, as he was finding his first supernovas, Zwicky was beginning a long-term program of cataloging galaxies and clusters of galaxies with his new large-field Schmidt telescope. In 1938 he maintained that the entire chain of reactions linking radiation to galaxies must be considered when analyzing the postulate that the universe is in thermodynamic equilibrium. The following year, before others began arguing that the universe is expanding, Zwicky proposed that the light from distant galaxies is red-shifted because of a gravitational drag (34).
Besides his astronomical research, Zwicky played a role in the development of jet propulsion and rocketry during and after World War II. Particularly important was his leadership in 1945 and 1946 of U.S. Air Force teams that went to Germany and Japan to evaluate wartime research on jet propulsion of these countries and to promote the effective transfer of their best technologies to the U.S. In 1949 President Harry Truman recognized this contribution by awarding Zwicky the Presidential Medal of Honor.
Among other physical scientists, deserving of mention is Alois Francis Kovařík (1880-1965), a physicist of Czech descent. He was a Professor of Physics at Yale University, and during World War II he was a member of the Manhattan Project which was responsible for the development of the atomic bomb (35).
Another physicist, John Zelený (1872-1951), also of Czech ancestry, received recognition for his research on electrical conduction through gases. He held the rank of full professor and Head of the Department of Physics, first at the University of Minnesota and later at Yale (36). His older brother, Anthony Zelený (1870-1947), was also an outstanding physicist, affiliated with the University of Minnesota. His research centered on electrical condensers, induction, galvanometers, thermocouples, and low temperature. He was a corresponding member of the Czech Academy of Sciences and served as Vice President of the American Association of the Advancement of Science (37).
Among the Czech-born physicists of note was Arthur Erich Haas (1884-1941), originally from Brno, who after immigration to the U.S, held the position of full professor of physics at Notre Dame.
Haas became the first to apply a quantum formula to the clarification of atomic structure. Although his theorem failed to take into account the excited states, it is considered a forerunner of Bohr’s atomic theory (38).
Among later scientists of international renown was George Placzek (1905-1955), a native of Brno, who studied physics at the Universities of Prague and Vienna. He began applying the newly established quantum mechanics to the Raman Effect, a type of inelastic scattering of light by molecules. In 1932 he wrote the then-definitive treatise on the Raman Effect while at Fermi’s institute in Rome.
During subsequent years he worked intermittently at Bohr’s institute in Copenhagen, with Lev Landau in Kharkov, and with Hans von Halban Jr. at Joliot’s Institute in Paris. Placzek’s work in Copenhagen rendered him a leading authority on neutron scattering and absorption in matter. In 1939 he was appointed research associate at Cornell University where he developed a fundamental theory of neutron absorption resonances. This work proved essential to the subsequent development of nuclear theory, and to the development of nuclear reactor design.
In 1943 Placzek was appointed head of the theoretical physics division of the Canadian Nuclear Research Laboratory at Chalk River and in 1945 he joined the staff of the Los Alamos Laboratory. In 1946 he transferred to General Electric Co. and in 1948 he became a member of the Institute of Advanced Study at Princeton. His pioneering studies of the inelastic scattering of high-energy neutrons in dense crystals contributed both to crystallography and to reactor design and opened a new field of interdisciplinary research (39).
Most eminent among physicists was Felix Bloch (1905-1983), a Swiss native of Bohemian ancestry. He studied physics at the Federal Institute of Technology of Zurich. He worked with Carl Heisenberg and Niels Bohr in Copenhagen, and from there he went to Holland and then to Rome, where he worked with Enrico Fermi. During these years he published his own papers on quantum theory, and on the electrical and magnetic properties of crystals. In addition, he made contributions to the study of ferromagnetism and of the energy losses from charged particles in rapid motion. In 1934, after the Nazis came to power in Germany, Bloch emigrated to the U.S. and became an associate professor of mathematical physics at Stanford University. He was the first to determine the magnetic moment of the neutron. In 1946 he published his theory and experimental method for very precise measurement of nuclear magnetic moments. In 1952 Bloch was awarded the Nobel Prize for physics for developing the nuclear induction method of measuring the magnetic field of atomic nuclei (40).
Another notable physicist with Czech roots deserving of mentioning is Victor F. Weisskopf (1908-2002), a native Viennese of Bohemian father. He initially worked in Wolfgang Pauli’s laboratory at the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. In 1937 he emigrated to the U.S. and joined the University of Rochester. During World War II Weisskopf worked on the atomic bomb Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, and in 1945 joined the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
From 1960-65 he was Director General of the European Centre for Nuclear Research (CERN), during which time the Centre operated the world’s second-largest Atom smasher“. After returning to the U.S. in 1965, he was appointed head of the physics department at M.I.T. Weisskopf specialized in nuclear physics, quantum theory, and radiation theory, and made contributions to the understanding of the forces in the atomic nucleus (41).
In the field of chemistry, we find Otto Eisenschiml (1880-1963) whose father, a native of Plzen, Bohemia, came to America in 1848, where he led an adventurous life as a gold digger in California. In addition to developing his own business for manufacturing paints, varnishes, and soaps, Otto Eisenschiml was an inventor of note.
He devised one of the earliest deodorants, transparent window envelopes, oiled baseball gloves, rustproof barbed wire, originally used by the armies in Flanders during World War I, and dozens of other useful contributions which flow unheralded into the stream of our necessities (42).
Among our contemporaries, the best known Czech American chemist is certainly Thomas Robert Cech (1947- ), a native of Chicago of Czech parents. After gaining his degree from the University of California at Berkeley, he joined the University of Colorado’s chemistry department, becoming a full professor in 1983.
He was the recipient of the Nobel Prize in 1989 for discovering that RNA, traditionally considered to be only a passive messenger of genetic information, can also take on an enzymatic role in which it catalyzes intracellular chemical reactions essential to life. Prior to this discovery, enzymatic activity had been attributed exclusively to proteins (43).
In 1998, another American scientist of Czech ancestry, Walter Kohn, whose father was a native of Hodonín, Moravia, was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry.
Walter Kohn is a condensed matter theorist who has made seminal contributions to the understanding of the electronic structure of materials. He played the leading role in the development of the density functional theory, which has revolutionized scientists’ approach to the electronic structure of atoms, molecules, and solid materials in physics, chemistry, and materials science. With the advent of supercomputers, density functional theory has become an essential tool for electronic materials science. Professor Kohn has also made major contributions to the physics of semiconductors, superconductivity, surface physics, and catalysis. Professor Kohn was the founding director of the National Science Foundation’s Institute for Theoretical Physics at the University of California, Santa Barbara. The Institute brings together leading scientists from throughout the world to work on major problems in theoretical physics and related fields. Under Professor Kohn’s leadership, it quickly developed into one of the leading research centers in physics and has been widely copied.
In the field of mathematics, the Czechs have given the U.S. three real giants, i.e. Charles Loewner, Václav Hlavatý, and Kurt Gödel. Charles Loewner (1893-l968) was born in Lany, Bohemia, and held the position of full professor of mathematics at Charles University in Prague until 1939.
When the Nazis occupied Czechoslovakia, he left and went to the U.S. During 1946-51 he held a professorship at Syracuse University, and from 1951 until his retirement in 1963 he was a full professor at Stanford. Much of his work was focused on applying Lie theory concepts and methods to semigroups, and applying semigroups to unexpected mathematical solutions.
Other work dealt with mathematical physics, including his non-Archimedean measure in Hilbert space, which is particularly noteworthy because of its originality (44).
Václav Hlavatý (1894-1969), a native of Louny, Bohemia was also a professor at Charles University, before and after the Second World War. Following the communist coup in 1948, he sought exile in the U.S. He joined the faculty of Indiana University which in 1962 gave him the title of Distinguished Service Professor of Mathematics.
He wrote extensively, specializing in differential geometry. In 1958 he published his monumental work, Geometry of Einstein’s Unified Field Theory, “in which he solved until then unsolvable differential equations of unified gravitational and electromagnetic field, thus providing definite proof for Einstein’s theory of relativity (45).
Kurt Gödel (1906-1978), a native of Brno, before the war was associated with the University of Vienna, while intermittently also working at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. In 1940 he came to the U.S. and joined the Institute for Advanced Study permanently, becoming a full professor in 1953.
He is considered the most important logician since Aristotle.
He is the author of the so-called” Gödel’s proof“ which states that within any rigid logical mathematical system there are propositions that cannot be proved or disproved on the basis of the axioms within that system. Consequently, it is uncertain that the basic axioms of arithmetic will not give rise to contradictions. This proof has become a hallmark of 20th-century mathematics (46).
It has not been my intention to give a complete accounting of all accomplished U.S. scientists and engineers who have their roots in the Czechlands. Nevertheless, it is evident, from the illustrative examples I gave that their contributions to various fields of American science and technology have been considerable
From the Czech perspective, these people must represent an enormous and irreplaceable loss. But there is the question of how much these individuals would have accomplished had they stayed in their native land. Be that as it may, the Czech Republic should take some pride in the accomplishments of their sons abroad as they may be reflections of their roots in the old country.
This article is based, in part, on a lecture presented at the Prague Symposium “Natural Scientists and Engineers”, organized in May 1991 by the Czechoslovak Society for the History of Science and Technology, on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Czech Academy of Sciences and Arts.
- For basic references on Czech Americans, see for example Thomas Čapek, The Czechs (Bohemians) in America (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1920); Joseph Slabey Roucek, “The Cultural Contributions of American Czechoslovaks,” Books Abroad 11 (1937), pp. 413-5; Francis Dvornik, Czech Contributions to the Growth of the United States (Chicago: Benedictine Abbey Press, 1962).
- A largely statistical account of some of the salient characteristics of the then-contemporary Czechoslovak scholars and scientists in the U.S. is given in Miloslav Rechcigl Jr. and Jiri Nehnevajsa, “American Scholars and Scientists with Czechoslovak Roots. Some Key Characteristics,” J. Washington Academy of Sciences 58 (1968), pp. 213-22.
- The term Czechlands“ refers to the territory of Bohemia, Moravia, and Silesia that constitute the present Czech Republic and which, prior to the establishment of independent Czechoslovakia, were an integral part of the Kingdom of Bohemia.
- For the discussion of the early immigrants to America from the Czechlands, see my article, In the Footprints of the First Czech Immigrants in America,“ Czechoslovak and Central European Journal 9, No. 1/2 (Summer/Winter 1990), pp. 75-90.
- Cited by Josef Polišenský, “Prameny a problémy dějin českého a slovenského vystěhovalectví do Latinské Ameriky,” Český lid 88, no. 1 (1981), p. 5.
- The term Bohemian“ in this paper relates exclusively to the inhabitants of Bohemia.
- See for example Otakar Odložilík, Czech Missionaries in New Spain,“ Hispanic American Historical Review 25 (1945), pp. 428-54; Josef Polišenský, op. cit.
- On Stansel, see The Catholic Encyclopedia (New York, The Gilmary Society, 1912), vol. 14, pp. 247-8; Dějiny exaktních věd v českých zemích do konce 19. století (Praha, ČSAV, 1961), p. 70, 81.
- On Fritz, see The Catholic Encyclopedia (New York: The Gilmary Society, 1913), vol. 6, p. 308.
- For more information about this first English attempt to colonize America, see David B. Quinn, Set Fair for Roanoke.Voyages and Colonies, 1584-1606 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1981).
- The latest information on Augustine Herman, can be found in Miloslav Rechcigl Jr, Augustine Herman Bohemiensis,“ Kosmas. Journal of Czechoslovak and Central European Studies 3, No. 1 (Summer 1984), pp. 139-48. The article also contains additional references.
- On Haenke, see Ottův slovník naučný (Praha, Otto, 1896), Vol. 10, pp. 848-9; New Catholic Encyclopedia (New York: McGraw- Hill Books Co., 1967), vol. 6., pp. 888-9.
- For information on mass migration, see example Zacatky ceskej a slovenskej emigracie do USA (Bratislava: SAV, 1970); Josef Polišenský, Úvod do studia dějin vystěhovalectví do Ameriky. I. Obecné problémy dějin českého vystěhovalectví do Ameriky 1848- 1914 (Praha: Univerzita Karlova, 1992)
- For a good discussion of the exodus of European scientists to the U.S. due to the Nazi persecution, see Laura Fermi, Illustrious Immigrants. The Intellectual Migration from Europe 1939-4 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968).
- In 1958, the Czech and Slovak exile scientists and scholars organized themselves into the U.S.-based Czechoslovak Society of Arts and Sciences (SVU). Short biographies of the members together with a historical account of the SVU activities can be found in the SVU Directory (Washington, DC: SVU Press, 1992).
- On Koller, see Dictionary of American Biography, suppl. 3, pp. 430-1.
- Biographical material on Hrdlička can be found in Dr. Aleš Hrdlička Anniversary Volume, Anthropologie 7, parts 1-2 (1929); Hrdlička Volume, Am. J. Physical Anthropology 25 (1940), pp. 3- 40; Adolph H. Schutz, Biographical Memoir of Aleš Hrdlička, 1869-1943, Biographical Memoirs of the National Academy of Sciences 23, No. 12 (1945), pp. 305-8. His young days in Humpolec are depicted in a novel form by František Brzoň and Jiří Rychtařík in their Chlapec s arnykou (České Budějovice, Jihočeské nakladatelství, 1983). For a personal account of Hrdlička’s personality during his years at the Smithsonian Institution, see T.D. Stewart, “Aleš Hrdlička, Pioneer American Physical Anthropologist”, in The Czechoslovak Contribution to World Culture. Edited by Miloslav Rechcigl Jr. (The Hague: Mouton & Co., 1964), pp. 505-9. In connection with Hrdlička’s theory of common ancestry of the human race, it is of interest that the latest researches, using the most sophisticated DNA analyses, point in the same direction.
- On Novy, see Dictionary of American Biography, Suppl. 6, pp. 481-2; Dictionary of Scientific Biography 10 (1974), pp. 154-5; Esmond Long, Frederick George Novy,“ Biographical Memoirs of the National Academy of Sciences 33 (1959), pp. 342-50.
- On Simon Flexner, see Dictionary of American Biography, Suppl. 4, pp. 186-9; Dictionary of Scientific Biography 5 (1972), pp. 39-41; Rous Peyton, Simon Flexner, 1863-1946,“ Obituary Notices of Fellows of the Royal Society 6 (1948-49), pp. 409-45. A full-length biography of Flexner was written by his son, James Thomas Flexner, An American Saga. The Story of Helen Thomas and Simon Flexner (Boston: Little Brown & Co., 1984).
- On Abraham Flexner, see Dictionary of American Biography, Suppl. 6, pp. 207-9; Franklin Parker, Abraham Flexner, 1866- 1959,“ History of Education Quarterly 2 (1962), pp. 199-209. Abraham Flexner also wrote his autobiography under the title I Remember (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1940).
- On Taussig, see National Cyclopedia of American Biography vol. C (1943), p. 498; Current Biography 1946, pp. 503.
- On Shimek, see Ottuv slovnik naucny nove doby, Vol. VI, No. 1, p. 729; Walter F. Lochwing, Bohumil Shimek (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1947).
- Thomas Čapek in his book The Czechs (Bohemians) in America, op. cit. , describes an interesting episode on how professors and students at Charles University were genuinely surprised when Bohumil Shimek in 1914 delivered a series of lectures in impeccable Czech on plant life in the U.S. They were amazed when told that the learned botanist had never attended any but English language schools, that up to that time he had not been in Europe, and that all the Czech had been learned in his native town in Iowa by self-tuition.
- For Charles Zelený’s biography, see Who Was Who in America, vol. 1, p. 1394.
- On Cori, see Dictionary of American Biography, suppl. 6, pp. 126-7; Nobel Prize Winners. Edited by Tyler Wasson (New York: H. W. Wilson, 1987), pp. 216-8, 218C20; B.A. Houssay, ACarl F. and Gerty R. Con,“ Biochimica et Biophysica Acta 20 (1956), pp. 11-6.
- For Melan’s biography, see Ottův slovník naučný nové doby, Vol. IV, No. 1, p. 166.
- For Emperger’s biography, see Ottův slovník naučný nové doby, Vol. II, No. 1, p. 421.
- For Klokner’s biography, see Ottův slovník naučný nové doby, Vol. III, No, 1, p. 561.
- For more information on Lindenthal, see Dictionary of American Biography, Suppl. 1, pp. 3408-9; Encyclopedia of Biography 11 (1940), pp. 379-81.
- For Terzaghi’s biodata, see, Who Was Who in America, vol. 4, p. 933.
- For Arnstein’s biography, see Who Was Who in America, vol. 6, p. 12.
- Further information on Louis E. Levy and Max Levy can be found in Dictionary of American Biography, Suppl. 8, pp. 202-3 and p. 203.
- On Jansky, see Dictionary of American Biography, suppl. 4, pp. 422-3.
- On Zwicky, see Dictionary of Scientific Biography 18 (1990), pp. 1011-3.
- On Kovařík, see National Cyclopedia of American Biography, vol. D (1934), p. 444.
- On John Zelený, see National Cyclopedia of American Biography 40 (1955), pp. 257-8; Who Was Who in America vol.3, p. 949.
- For Anthony Zelený’s biography, see Who Was Who in America, vol. 3, p. 599.
- For more information on Haas, see Dictionary of Scientific Biography 5 (1972) , pp. 609-10.
- For more information about Placzek, see Dictionary of Scientific Biography 18 (1990), pp. 714-5; Leon Van Hove, “George Placzek, 1905-1955,“ Nuclear Physics 1 (1956), pp. 623-6.
- On Bloch, see Nobel Prize Winners, op. cit., pp. 102-4; National Cyclopedia of Biography, vol. I (1990), pp. 310-2.
- For more information on Weisskopf, see Who’s Who in America, 1995, p. 3885; Current Biography 1976, pp. 423-6.
- On Eisenschiml, see Encyclopedia of Biography 9 (1938), pp. 389-90.
- For Cech’s biodata, see Who’s Who in America, 1995, p. 619. A detailed account of his discovery can be found in Science 231 (1986), pp. 545-5; and Science 246 (1989), p. 325; Peter Radetsky, Genetic Heretic,” Discovery 11 (November 1990), pp. 78-82.
- For more information about Loewner, see Dictionary of Scientific Biography 8 (1973), pp. 457-8.
- For Hlavatý’s biography, see Who Was Who in America, vol. 5, p. 338. Prof. Hlavaty was also very active in and held the position of the first President of the Czechoslovak Society of Arts and Sciences in America, generally known as the SVU. The Society published in his honor a book of essays: Perspectives in Geometry and Relativity. Edited by Banesh Hoffmann (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1966).
- On Gödel, see C. Kreisel,“ Kurt Gödel,“ Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society 26 (1980), pp. l49-224; Dictionary of Scientific Biography 17 (1990), pp. 348-57; John Dawson, Logical Dilemmas: The Life and Work of Kurt Gödel (Wellesley, MA: A.K. Peters, 1994); Palle Yourgrau, The Disappearance of Time: An Essay on the Philosophy of Kurt Gödel (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991).
Tags: Czech Pioneers, Czechs in America, Czech People, Bohemians, American Czechs, Czechs in Science, Czech technology, Czech discoveries, Czech contributions to science, Czech contributions to technology, Czech scientists, Czech physicists, Czech mathematicians.
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Miloslav Rechcígl, Jr. is one of the founders and past Presidents of many years of the Czechoslovak Society of Arts and Sciences (SVU), an international professional organization based in Washington, DC.
He is a native of Mladá Boleslav, Czechoslovakia, who has lived in the US since 1950.
Read his entire profile here.
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