Return to Article Details Review of Pioneer Hungarian Women in Science and Education

Pioneer Hungarian Women in Science and Education
Réka M. Cristian and Anna Kérchy (Eds.)
Akadémiai Kiadó, Budapest, 2022.
151 pp.
ISBN: 978 963 454 771 6


Pioneer Hungarian Women in Science and Education edited by Réka M. Cristian and Anna Kérchy (Akadémiai Kiadó, 2022) is without a question a milestone achievement attained and initiated by the Presidential Committee “Women in Science” at the Hungarian Academy of Science. Inspired by such preceding publications in cultural history and history of education as Nők a magyar tudományban [Women in Hungarian Science] edited by Margit Balogh and Mária Palasik (Napvilág, 2010) alongside Magdolna Hargittai’s Women Scientists: Reflections, Challenges and Breaking Boundaries (Oxford University Press, 2015) and its Hungarian version, Nők a tudományban határok nélkül (Akadémiai Kiadó, 2015), the volume is an important step towards reducing the gender imbalance in academia and advancing equal opportunities for women in science. The Committee’s purpose driven agenda is to serve the scientific community in general and women scientists in particular through advocating, initiating, and implementing action that help diminish those factors which dishearteningly hamper equal opportunities to ensure conditions for the self-realization of women scientist in Hungary.

Soon to be followed by yet another book in the near future Nők a tudomány fellegvárában: Kutatói Életutak a Magyar Tudományos Akadémián 1951–2021 [Women in the Science Citadel: Researcher Life Journeys at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences Between 1951 and 2021] edited by Diána Háy, Mária Palasik and Mária Schadt, Pioneer Hungarian Women offers a rich tapestry of numerous startlingly astonishing life stories and bizarrely stalled careers that fill the pages of the untold history of women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Maths (STEM), alongside a second volume of Pioneer Hungarian Women in Science and Education II edited by Réka M. Cristian and Anna Kérchy. As Enikő Bollobás, Chair of the Presidential Committee emphasizes in the introduction, portraying the impressive life and work of thirteen pioneering women in diverse disciplines and surveying the scientific accomplishments that placed them at the pinnacle of their respective fields is driven by a threefold motivation (p. 9). The editors and researchers taking part in this project carried out their work in the hope that the daring adventures of Hungarian women scholars, scientists and educators all born before 1945 can have appeal for and thus may reach out to a broader audience both in Hungary and internationally. Consequently, the publication sets out to have a good chance to become successful in its goal to disseminate information on Hungarian women scientists.

Also, the work was designed as a future contribution to the global untold history of women scientists showcased in the biographies of two influential reformers of female education: Countess Terézia Brunszvik and Countess Blanka Teleki. Their life stories are followed by the first woman archeologist and anthropologist Zsófia Torma (known also as Sophia von Torma, who corresponded with German, Austrian and German scholars of her age and was perhp, the first woman astronomer Baroness Berta Degenfeld-Schomburg, the first woman physician Vilma Hugonnai, the outstanding mathematician, philosopher, and psychologist Valéria Dienes, the first Hungarian mineralogist Mária Dudich Vendl, the botanist Vera Csapody, Rózsa Péter as the first woman mathematician to gain membership in the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (whose investigations in mathematical logic are connected with those of the American Alonzo Church and the Austrian Kurt Gödel), and the musicologist Margit Prahács. The inexhaustible list is brought to a temporary halt (the second volume is already ‘in the oven’) by the final chapter, which relates the ordeals of the chemist Ilona Banga. The twists and turns of this story could easily be adopted to the big screen with her two major and uncredited scientific discoveries being thwarted in the shadow that was cast by an utterly hierarchical treatment on behalf of her male colleagues: Nobel laurate Albert Szent-Györgyi and Bruno Straub, who was later to promoted to be vice president of the Academy of Sciences, which never elected Banga as its member. The political ‘success’ of Straub’s career is signaled by him becoming the very last chairman of the Hungarian Presidential Council before the end of the communist regime.

A third incentive proffered by the authors focuses on future generations of would-be scientists, girls and women of all ages and cultures who might find inspiration and motivation not only in the trailblazing achievements of the pioneering women discussed in the book, but also in a quote by Katalin Karikó highlighted in the preface by the editors Réka M. Cristian and Anna Kérchy: “Follow your dreams and don’t hesitate to learn anything from anyone!”

Reading through the pages of this volume, one comes to the realization how hundreds if not thousands of years of education history, to cite András Fáy (a prominent politician of the Reform Era), “consigned woman to eternal girlhood and pressed into her hands a doll instead of a royal scepter” (p. 23). However, the picture is far from being black and white. Not dissimilar to a roman à clef, the period covered in Pioneer Hungarian Women is teaming with famous artists and renowned scientists both men and women. The reader is informed that Teréz Brunszvik’s piano teacher was none other than Ludwig van Beethoven, that Margit Prahács not only had a close relationship with Bartók and Kodály but was recommended for the position of vice librarian in the Music Academy by Cécile Tormay. For some, it may not come as a surprise that Baroness Berta Degenfeld-Schomburg’s sister was the wife of Kálmán Tisza. A favorable cultural context is implied by the fact, for instance, that Géza Podmanicky, the husband of the first woman astronomer in Hungary, who was a close friend of Minka Czóbel, served as a model for Gyula Krúdy’s protagonist in A kékszalag hőse [The Hero of the Blue Ribbon]. By the same token, it seems more than just a simple ‘fun fact’ that Mihály Babits modeled the character of Gitta Hintáss in Halálfiai [The Children of Death] upon Valéria Dienes, the philosopher, who was single-handedly responsible for introducing the Hungarian public to the modern dance movement championed by Isadora Duncan, the secret muse of Hungarian painter Tivadar Csontváry Kosztka. Dienes was also influenced by Isadora’s brother, Raymond, in her choreographic art. The photos are simply amazing. There are many more prominent figures to be encountered when perusing the biographies of these exceptional, extraordinary women, the reader, for example, meets Lajos Bárdos in the same life where Ottokár Prohászka plays a significant role as well, but one also learns of the fact that Lord Byron’s daughter, Ada Lovelace is widely considered as the “first computer programmer,” though she lived in the first half of the 19th century (p. 106).

No matter how impressive the list of pre-eminent cultural celebrities surrounding these women may seem, the sentiments and sensibilities displayed throughout those two hundred years surveyed with intent to create a reconstructed canon in science seem predominantly patriarchal and male dominant, alas. The book quotes yet another legendary author from Hungarian literature, namely Kálmán Mikszáth, who summarized the view of the majority regarding the empowerment and enfranchisement of women with strong emotions “dejecting that […] the higher professions will have to be opened up for women. Now we are going to have women as doctors, engineers, physicists and God only knows what else […] It will be a skewed world” (p. 66). A skewd world, indeed…

Scholars of the present day: Zsuzsanna Arany (PhD), Enikő Bollobás (PhD, Dsc), Éva Bruckner (PhD), Réka M. Cristian (PhD, Dr habil), Anna Dalos (PhD, Dsc), Magdolna Hargittai (PhD, Dsc), Anna Kérchy (PhD, Dr habil), Katalin Kéri (PhD, Dsc), Larisa Kocic-Zámbó (PhD), Béla Pukánszky (PhD, Dsc), Péter Gábor Szabó (PhD, Dr habil), Andrea Varga (PhD), all contributors to this volume, which fills an unnecessary and counterproductive hiatus in cultural consciousness, offer ample amount of sources in their bibliographies to help the reader bind their time before the second installment of the research instigated by “Women in Science” comes out. As evidenced by the exceptional endeavor and achievements of both the authors and the Presidential Committee at the Hungarian Academy of Science, Nők a tudomány fellegvárában: Kutatói Életutak a Magyar Tudományos Akadémián 1951–2021 [Women in the Science Citadel: Researcher Life Journeys at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences Between 1951 and 2021] promises to be just as a compelling read as this ground-breaking collection manifestly is.