AAUW’s Support of Hungarian Scientists

February 06, 2015

Last year AAUW began a collaboration with the Alcoa Foundation to encourage new generations of scientists, engineers, and mathematicians and to extend our own successful STEM programs to sites where Alcoa already is, including Székesfehérvár, Hungary, where we plan to debut a new program for local girls next year. But this isn’t AAUW’s first foray into supporting women scientists in Hungary. Madeleine Forró and Erzsébet Kol, two prominent Hungarian women scientists, were bolstered by AAUW support during their careers.

1935-36 AAUW Fellow Dr. Erzsébet Kol in a lab full of glass bottles

1935-36 AAUW Fellow Dr. Erzsébet Kol

Accomplished botanist Kol (1897–1980) received a 1935–36 AAUW fellowship, which she used to fund and conduct her research on glaciers and to study algae found in the snow and ice of high mountain regions.

According to the AAUW Journal in January 1937, “For 10 years, Kol had been making studies of this distinctive form of vegetation in the mountains of Europe and the fellowship brought the longed-for opportunity to compare the forms of these snow algae of Europe with those found in America — a pioneering study.”

Not one to back down from a challenge, Kol packed the heavy equipment required for her journey and traveled first to Washington, D.C., to the Smithsonian Institution. Armed with a letter from AAUW announcing that she had received the International Crusade Fellowship, she persuaded a member of the Smithsonian staff to finance her $700 journey to Alaska.

Once on her way, she reached glaciers and snowfields and “studied not by train window or steamer deck, but by actual climbing, often alone (for guides and assistants add to the expense) and sometimes in unchartered wilderness.” (AAUW Journal, January 1937) As a result of expeditions such as this one, Kol’s fascinating reports were published around the world, and she amassed one of the largest collections of snow algae anywhere, with varying types and colors (pictured above).

Fast-forward 20 years, and another deserving Hungarian scientist received an AAUW fellowship. A pioneer in the research of cosmic radiation, Madeleine Barnóthy Forró (1904–95) was the author of more than 150 books and papers on nuclear physics and biomagnetism.

Forró began this long and successful scientific career in 1928 when she defended her doctoral dissertation on measurements of the diaelectric constant. As a result, she became the first woman in Hungary to earn a doctorate in physics.

Later that same year, she and her fellow faculty member at the University of Budapest — and future husband — Jeno Barnóthy became interested in research surrounding cosmic radiating. This led to the pair constructing large versions of the Geiger-Müller counter, as well as designing one of the first telescopes that could study the high-energy spectrum, isotopy, and absorption of cosmic rays.

After World War II, Forró and Barnóthy immigrated to the United States after trying unsuccessfully to garner the support needed to reestablish cosmic-ray research in Hungary. Once in the United States, they continued to make strides in scientific research while also teaching at Barat College in Lake Forest, Illinois. Their main interest shifted to astrophysics, and their major contribution to this area was the study of gravitational lensing and its effects on quasars. In fact, Forró and Barnóthy were among the first astronomers to seriously promote the idea of gravitational lensing.

In 1953, Forró began a new position as a professor of physics at the University of Illinois College of Medicine. Once there, in order to continue her research, she applied for and received an AAUW National Fellowship in 1955.

As part of the application process she was interviewed by AAUW member Gertrude Smith, who wrote, “[Forró] is a woman of considerable experience with a large amount of publication to her credit both here and abroad. She is undoubtedly a scholar who has already arrived and who will continue to do significant work.”

Along with their individual research and achievements, both Forró and Kol prioritized teaching throughout their careers, Kol returning to Franz Joseph University after her travels to be a botany professor. Their commitment not only to advancing their chosen field, but also to inspiring the next generation of scientists is why AAUW supported each of them, and why we continue in the same vein by expanding our STEM education.

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