Ilona Banga

Ilona Banga was a Hungarian biochemist who co-discovered actomyosin – the actin/myosin combo that allows muscles to contract so you can move. She also co-discovered the first elastase, a protein capable of degrading the protein elastin, which gives tissues like veins their flexibility, and her clever thinking saved her research institute’s valuable equipment and facilities during WWII. 

Banga was born in Hungary in 1906. After getting a master’s degree in chemistry from the University of Debrecen, she joined the lab of Albert Szent-Györgyi at the University of Szeged as a research assistant. In addition to aiding with the work on metabolism and vitamin C that would earn him the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1937 (this included her developing methods to purify vitamin C (ascorbic acid) from nearly a ton of Hungarian paprika), she made groundbreaking discoveries about muscle composition and energy usage. You can learn more about that work here:

Banga worked with Szent-Györgyi  for 17 years, authoring 25 papers during that period, however the widespread distribution of their findings was hampered by WWII. Szent-Györgyi had to go into hiding because he was wanted because of his anti-Nazi activities. This left Banga to protect the lab and all of its valuable research equipment; she posted notices (written in German, Russian, and Hungarian) on the door of the Institute of Chemistry saying it was researching infectious materials and providing sample drop-off hours. This successfully scared away anyone who wanted to take their equipment and the Institute for Medicinal Chemistry remained intact – it was the only institute at the university to not have its facilities or equipment damaged. 

When Szent-Györgyi left Hungary for the United States after WWII, Banga stayed and became chief of the Chemical Laboratory of the First Institute of Pathological Anatomy in Budapest. In this new position she worked closely with her husband, pathologist, József Baló, studying arteriosclerosis and changes that occur to veins during aging. Through this work they discovered the first elastase – an enzyme capable of degrading elastin fibers like those in veins. Other scientists were initially skeptical, but Banga was able to crystallize elastase and convince them. 

Banga published over 60 papers just in the years from 1948-1965. She retired in 1970, but continued to serve as a scientific advisor for the Generontology Institute from 1971 to 1986. 

She was the first female associate professor at the university, but she was never promoted to full professor. But she did win prestigious awards including the Kassuth Prize and the 1st Szent-György Prize. You can learn more about Banga on her new Wikipedia page! 

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