THEY LIVED IN LEEDS
Professor Laszlo Lorand (1923 - 2018)
One Sunday afternoon in December 1948, a Hungarian medical student called Laszlo Lorand made a bold decision that would change his life – and probably broke his heart. Saying farewell to his fiancee and widowed mother in Budapest, he stepped aboard a train bound for Vienna and embarked on an epic journey that would eventually bring him to Leeds.
It was Lorand's passion for science that had brought him to Leeds – but he had paid a heavy price. During the previous summer, he had been invited by the internationally renowned physicist William Astbury to visit his new department at the University of Leeds where he was pioneering a new science called 'molecular biology' which used X-rays to study the shape of giant molecules found in living systems. For a young researcher like Lorand, the opportunity to work with such an eminent figure was too good to be missed– but his enthusiasm was not shared by his political masters in Hungary. In those early days of the Cold War, the prospect of a promising young scientist travelling to the West and falling under its influence was not one that was welcomed by the Communist authorities. As a result, Lorand was informed that he would not be allowed to travel to Leeds and his passport was to be cancelled.
Having narrowly escaped deportation to Auschwitz where his father was murdered during the Nazi occupation of Hungary, Lorand was not willing to suffer under yet another totalitarian regime. Fleeing Hungary, he arrived in Leeds in January 1949 carrying only a suitcase that his mother, having heard of food shortages in Britain, had stuffed with roast goose and salami. Postwar austerity had also taken its toll on his new working conditions. Astbury may have hoped that his new department would be at the cutting edge of molecular biology, but the reality was very different. The laboratories were housed in a converted residential property that was plagued with an unreliable supply of electricity and prone to flooding. Under these far from ideal conditions, Lorand began to study how blood clots form using material collected from either a local abbatoir or the Red Cross and then brought back in a bottle clutched tightly to his chest so as not to spill it on the tram ride home.
But perhaps one of the greatest challenges Lorand faced was when the Hungarian authorities demanded that he return. Astbury came to Lorand's defence arguing that his work was too important for him to return and saying:
As far as I can see, the only ‘crime’ that Lorand has committed is that he was rash enough to leave Hungary to work in this University and has therefore fallen under the bane of Western influences. In these days, as you know, that can be sufficient to damn anyone from the Eastern European countries, and it appears that it has indeed been sufficient to damn Lorand.
Thanks to Astbury's intervention, Lorand was allowed to remain in Leeds to study for a PhD - and the decision proved to be a wise one. He made a major discovery about the formation of blood clots which has since been of huge medical significance and was the beginning of an illustrious and distinguished career in this field. After leaving Leeds in 1953 he went to the USA where he received numerous honours and was a Professor at Northwestern University until his death in December 2018.
School of Philosophy, Religion and History of Science
University of Leeds