Autobiography Index

After the Revolution in 1956, a friend of ours, László Kardos, founder and former head of NÉKOSZ (National Alliance of Peoples' Colleges) paid a visit to Erzsi at the National Library. He handed over for safekeeping the typed memoirs of Imre Nagy, Hungary's Prime Minister during the Revolution, who had been kidnapped and imprisoned, and who was later executed (in 1958). I suggested to Erzsi that she should hide the manuscript behind one of the several million books in the library, someone will be very happy to find it a hundred years in the future. She indeed did this. Kardos was soon arrested and was in jail until 1963 - while there, he taught young criminals, thieves and the like, to read and write, and convinced many of them to start reading good books.

When Laci Kardos was released from prison in the 1963 amnesty for political prisoners, Erzsi located the manuscript and put it in her drawer, waiting for Kardos to come and reclaim it. Unfortunately, as we found out, Erzsi was under observation by one of her colleagues, who discovered the manuscript in her drawer and reported its existence to the authorities. Agents of the Secret Police came to pick her up soon enough, they confiscated the manuscript and took Erzsi to "safe houses" for interrogation. They paid me a visit as well in my office, and took away a packet of newspapers and leaflets I had preserved from the 1956 Revolution. Agents started to survey our apartment, standing outside our windows just like Pizent's guards in Bologna used to. Erzsi was becoming very nervous, but I managed to make her laugh by suggesting that we invite the agents in for a cup of tea, surely they were freezing outside. (I should add at this point that while this was going on, Imre Nagy's memoirs had already been published abroad - clearly the manuscript Kardos had given Erzsi was not the only copy.)

Meanwhile I published several articles on a topic for which I found the inspiration during a visit to Glasgow in 1960. My Glasgow colleagues had been analysing deer antlers, with the aim of determining the concentration of radioactive strontium in them. This was the period of nuclear testing by both the US and the Soviet Union, and radioactive strontium originating in these explosions spread all around the world. Strontium acts just like calcium, depositing in bone as well as in antlers. Since deer develop new antlers every year, antlers are good indicators for the spread of strontium. When I returned from Glasgow, my daughter Mari had just come back from summer camp in Csopak (near Lake Balaton) and told us about her friends collecting and eating raw snails there (she of course had not participated in this...). This made me think that snails may actually be better indicators of strontium presence than are antlers - they are cheaper to obtain, their weight is a greater proportion of the animal's weight, and they collect the material from which the hard shell is made from a more restricted and more easily characterized area.

So I paid a visit to the Department of Zoology of the National Museum, and asked for their snail expert, who was very pleased to help me since there are very few people interested in snails at all. His name was Pál Agócsy. He gave me old samples of snail-shells, and we also went on snail-collecting expeditions to limestone-rich, limestone-poor and sandy areas. We visited Mount Badacsony (north of Lake Balaton), Tokaj (famous for its wine in north-eastern Hungary) and the Great Hungarian Plain (eastern Hungary).

All I needed now was to find an analytical method for the determination of radioactive strontium, a method not relying on expensive equipment. I found such a method, the most expensive instrument it needed was a Geiger tube costing less than $10. Strontium-90 emits beta radiation, its half-life is about 30 years. It decays to yttrium-90, also a beta-radiation emitter, with a half-life of about 64 hours. Yttrium behaves chemically just like potassium, and therefore can be separated easily from strontium. My method consisted of separating strontium (together with calcium) from yttrium. Without waiting, I put the now yttrium-free strontium into the Geiger counter and measured the level of beta radiation. I re-measured this beta radiation for several days - it continued to increase as the strontium slowly changed into yttrium. I was able to calculate the amount of the original strontium-90 from this rate of increase in yttrium-90. There was also a minimal amount of radium (which also behaves chemically like calcium) present, which gave out a very small level of background radiation, but since its half-time is several thousand years, it does not interfere with the determination. Excluding the entertaining snail-collecting expeditions, the whole work involved took only about a week, and it took me just a few additional days to write up the article. I quickly sent it off to London, to the best-known (and very influential) scientific journal Nature, which published it within two weeks, quite an honour for my work (193, 290,1962).

As a result, I was invited to the 1963 Conference of the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) in Vienna. At first I did not receive the invitation I had been sent, both by mail and by telephone, as I was under surveillance because of Erzsi (the Nagy manuscript, Szilágyi), my mail and my phone were both intercepted and my hosts were told that I was away from Budapest on mission. But Dietrich Merten from the IAEA, who later became my friend, kept on trying to contact me by phone. Finally, the secret police must have decided that I was more important than I really was, and Erzsi was convoked, this time to the police, and asked her to sign a meaningless statement that she had never been interrogated. The case against her was stopped, and I could now receive phone calls and letters, and eventually a passport as well.

I came back from the conference in Vienna, where I had made a presentation, in such an upbeat mood, and I now spoke English with such enthusiasm, that Prof. Gillman, who was in Budapest on an expert-recruiting mission from the Institute of Nutrition in Accra, Ghana, became convinced that he could not possibly set up a food toxicology section in the Institute without me. This is how I was able to move to Accra, the capital of Ghana in West Africa, with my whole family. We spent four year there. Had Erzsi not gone through the Szilágyi-Nagy-manuscript business, she would never have agreed to leave the country, as she was very attached to her work in the National Library.

We travelled to Ghana together with Béla Ringelhann and his family. Béla was a doctor from Eger, in north-eastern Hungary. The two of us did not work in the same institution in Ghana, but our workplaces were close to each other (he taught at the Medical School), as were the houses made available to our families by the Ghana Academy of Science. Our children all attended the same school, the Ghana International School, where they learned most of their English.

However, I was not unable to do the main thing I was hired to do in Ghana. Not only was I supposed to obtain proper equipment for my laboratory, but I also had train young researchers to carry out basic analytical work involving heavy metals, pesticide residues etc. As soon as I expressed a positive opinion about young people with an undergraduate degree from a university, they were immediately sent away on scholarship to study for a graduate degree at a British or American university. When they returned to Ghana, all of them, without exception, ended up at a desk job in a ministry. With their advanced degrees they had no wish to dirty their hands with laboratory work. There I was, earning $8000 a year, with a car and a house, while those people I could have counted on to help with my work earned $800 a year, or - the lab assistants, who should have washed the equipment or cleaned the floors - earned $1 a day, and did their work accordingly. Thus it was up to me to do my normal work as well as to wash the equipment properly, in order that I could carry out micro-analytical determinations accurately.

My most important and most productive work was the uncovering of arsenic pollution produced by a gold mine near Prestea. The gold-bearing material in this mine was pyrite, which was thinly dispersed in the rocks. The mined rocks were milled, and the pyrite was separated out by flotation. Roasting was then used to get rid of sulfur (as well as of arsenic) , after which gold was obtained from the remaining concentrate by a cyanidization process. Cyanide was not a problem for the surrounding population, because it was emptied into the nearby river where it quickly oxidized into harmless substances. On the other hand, the chimney of the roaster emitted 6 tons of arsenic trioxode every day, and this contaminated the nearby village as well as the countryside around it. The population obtained its drinking water from rainwater flowing off rooftops, containing 4-6mg/L of arsenic according to our measurements. Dermal and internal symptoms of arsenic poisoning were clearly present in the population of the village. We were able to establish that the arsenic content of well water was below 0.1mg/L, and was therefore safe to drink. Since we had no other instruments with us, we collected 10x10 cm samples of fresh (third) leaves of the ubiquitous banana tree, in both the villages and the countryside around them, from up to 50 km away.

We took these samples back to the Accra laboratory, together with water samples, where we decided to use the laborious, but reliable, Gutzeit Method for the determination of arsenic. We also sent samples to a laboratory in Ottawa, Canada, where results similar to ours were found using more modern analytical methods. We submitted a long and detailed report to the competent ministry, but as far as I know no action was taken as a result, aside from what we had done, which was to warn the population about the dangers and to advise them to drink well water, which was safe, and to use it to wash the fruits and vegetables they ate. The only wish expressed by the ministry was not to publicise our findings. Later on, we made a presentation on this at a scientific conference held in Toronto. My colleague in all this work was Charles Farmilo, a Canadian scientist. A few years later, when I was already in Canada, I learned that Ghanaian scientists repeated my study of the area using more modern methods, as well as the area around an even larger gold mine near Kumasi, and found the same levels of arsenic contamination.

After this I restricted my work in Ghana to routine laboratory work, such as the determination of blood cholinesterase levels in pesticide sprayers. There was also a serious case of food poisoning: after President Nkrumah of Ghana was overthrown in a coup d'état in 1966, Soviet and East German experts in the country were expelled, although Hungarians were not touched. Soviet experts therefore left an agricultural enterprise near Accra where corn (maize) was grown. The Soviet-supplied seed had been treated with mercury as a pesticide. With the experts gone, local people looted the farm and ate the seed. Many died. They were of course not helped by our laboratory findings afterwards, in which we found out that indeed there were widespread cases of mercury poisoning.

My contract in Ghana expired in 1968. Well ahead of that date, a year before, I paid a visit to the Canadian High Commission (Embassy) in Accra, and inquired about the conditions for obtaining an immigrant visa. Quite quickly they told me that we could obtain such a visa entirely on account of my professional qualifications and experience, and that there would be no need for a letter of invitation and/or a guarantee by a Canadian citizen. We had to proceed in great secrecy, so that the Hungarian Embassy (which could have tried to put pressure on the Ghanaian authorities) would not learn of our request for an immigrant visa to Canada. We had to undergo a medical examination first. In due time we received the visa, and were preparing for emigration. Before we left Ghana, the Canadian High Commission organized a farewell dinner in our honour - the diplomats seemed very pleased at having found a highly qualified immigrant. To keep the event unremarked, its official purpose was to say goodbye to Charlie Farmilo, we were only invited guests.

Finally, we left Accra at the end of June 1968. We first spent two weeks in France (just a few weeks after the student uprising in May 1968). We left Paris by air on July 15, the day after Bastille Day, and landed at Dorval Airport near Montréal the same day. Erzsi's old acquaintance, George Gottlieb (who had been a lodger at her parents' home as a student) greeted us into our new country, and took us to a hotel where he paid for the first two weeks.