A Legacy of Scientific Enthusiasm: George Somjen
George Somjen was born and grew up in Budapest, Hungary. Studying Medicine, he earned his medical degree at the University of Amsterdam. He started his neuroscientific research career at the University of Ottago, New Zealand, where he obtained his first faculty appointment. In 1962, George Somjen then moved to the United States and was later appointed professor of Physiology at Duke University Medical Center, where he taught generations of medical students and conducted his research for almost 40 years. Since his retirement in 2000, he held the status of Professor Emeritus of Physiology in Cell Biology and Neurobiology and still remained an active contributor in the Neurosciences.
George Somjen´s neurophysiological research focused mainly on the impacts of ion regulation and of hypoxia on mammalian brain tissue as well as on the mechanistic details of the phenomenon of spreading depression and hypoxic spreading depression-like depolarization associated to migraine and stroke. Publishing far beyond 100 research papers and comprehensive review articles, he has been a major player and highly respected scientist, who markedly contributed to shape this field of research for several decades. A particularly valuable source of inspiration and knowledge remains George Somjen's outstanding book 'Ions in the Brain’, which has opened the door to this field for many scientists of the younger generation. The book bridges the gap from the beginnings of this field in the 1940s to the pioneering work of the early 2000s that finally led to unequivocal electrophysiological evidence of the spreading depolarization waves in humans, not only in migraine aura but also in transient ischemic attacks, ischemic strokes, hemorrhagic strokes, traumatic brain injury, and dying of the brain. Many of these very recent findings in humans, which hold the promise of improving the diagnostic and therapeutic options for serious neurological diseases, become understandable when George's book is studied in detail. George's life's work is therefore an exceptional example of translational research from animal experimentation to humans. George was grateful that he had taken an MD/PhD career path early on because, from his perspective, it allowed him to gain a deeper science-based understanding of disease. However, the motivation for his scientific work stemmed from a desire to alleviate people's suffering. George was a humanist who actively forged ties throughout the globe, enrolling students, postdoctoral fellows or guest researchers from all continents for his laboratory, with whom he maintained a subsequent scientific relationship of affection and disinterested help. Admirably, up to the very time-point when he closed his laboratory for retirement, George was still eager to find the time of conducting at least some experiments on his own.
For George, science was also an instrument for the advancement of international understanding, peace building, and the protection of human rights. He survived the Holocaust as a 15-year-old after being interned in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. His father died during the Holocaust. In 1949, he escaped from communist Hungary to the Netherlands. During a visit to one of his German friends, Uwe Heinemann, he told Uwe's scientific offspring about this in a conversation that was more about science, how difficult it felt for him to be near Bergen-Belsen again. But his past didn’t let George avoid Germany. He visited the country from time to time and had the great heartedness to meet people without reservations. Perhaps his topmost visit was in May 2007, when he gave the honorary lecture at the seventh meeting of the Co-Operative Studies on Brain Injury Depolarizations (COSBID) in Berlin. At the same meeting, Rudolf Graf presented the first clinical study in which spreading depolarizations were recorded in malignant hemispheric infarcts - one of the milestones for transferring basic findings, that George and his coworkers had obtained in animal and brain slice experiments, to humans.
Several years after his retirement, a small but fervently enthusiastic group of young researchers in Hungary turned their focus to spreading depolarization and became associated with COSBID. George Somjen’s scrupulous work and “Ions in the brain” have served as the most solid points of reference; George Somjen has inspired crucially this upcoming young generation of experimental neurophysiologists.
Everyone having had the pleasure to work, collaborate and interact with George Somjen admired his generous and considerate nature, his supportiveness, his scientific enthusiasm, and his detailed knowledge spanning more than half a century of neurophysiological research. From him we learned such valuable lessons in science as in life, such as the importance of moving away from stridencies, and that sincere work pays off with solutions to scientific problems that are useful to others and that endure beyond recognition and awards.
Many of us owe George a lot, personally as well as professionally. He will be missed by many and we will never forget him and the valuable, influential years spent in his laboratory. His legacy will live on in our minds, our continued research, and in his book “Ions in the brain: Normal function, seizures and stroke”.
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