Czech scientists
Josef Michl, Jarmila Janatová and Jiří Janata all worked in American laboratories during communism.

Science in exile

Czech scientists reflect on years abroad

Leonardo da Vinci, Albert Einstein and Tycho Brahe all lived in exile. How did this influence their research?

Unfortunately, they can no longer answer this question. But because of the Soviet invasion of 1968, hundreds of Czech scientists can. Though it is impossible to generalize, one common thread runs through many of their careers: flexibility. A number of these scientists were back in Prague recently for “Scholars in Exile,” a conference sponsored by the Czech Academy of Sciences. Happy to see their homeland again, they nonetheless agreed unanimously that their exile had given them opportunities they would not have had in Czechoslovakia.

Josef Michl is professor of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of Colorado in Boulder. Born in Czechoslovakia, Michl was in Norway when the invasion started, and he knew his previous political associations would have brought his career to a screeching halt.

“They would have given me some halfway reasonable job – not in science, maybe as a clerk,” he says, adding that his exile forced him to try things he might not have at home.

“I became braver,” Michl says. “I lost my reluctance to learn something new just because it would be very different from what I knew already. … Here we tend to say, ‘I’m not an expert in that field, so I won’t even try.’ There, you just have to learn it.”

Michl started working in several quite different fields in exile, falling into what he calls “a crack between organic chemistry, physical chemistry and inorganic chemistry.”

His application of the quantum approach – then in a stage of explosive growth – to all these fields led to rapid recognition by the scientific community, including membership in numerous prestigious organizations such as the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, more than 600 publications, five books and the editorship of a leading chemistry journal.

Rudolf Zahradník, former director of the Czech Academy of Sciences, calls Michl “a five-star general in the world chemical army.”

Also during 1968, scientist Jiří Janata was on a fellowship at the University of Michigan with his wife, also a chemist, fully expecting to come home in a year. That changed overnight.

Buffeted between the United States and England by U.S. immigration policy, Janata eventually got a job as professor in bioengineering and materials science at the University of Utah, where he stayed for 15 years, conducting breakthrough work with chemical sensors.

In 1991, at age 50, Janata took a job as associate director at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Washington State. There he was involved in the cleanup of the Hanford Site, where the plutonium for America’s nuclear weapons program was produced. For Janata, this was a complete change of direction.

“I wasn’t a trained radiochemist, so this was like going back to graduate school. I learned nuclear physics and radiochemistry from scratch,” he said.

Nonetheless, six years later, dissatisfied with progress on the cleanup, he left to teach courses on the balance of nuclear energy and the environment at the Georgia Institute of Science and Technology.

Pearls in the sand

The career of Jarmila Janatová, professor emeritus of bioengineering at the University of Utah, was tortuous. After emigration, rearing two children kept her from her active research for six years; nevertheless, she published a widely read and highly successful review titled On the Heterogeneity of Serum Albumin.

Thanks to this, in 1977 Janatová joined a project that became her scientific tour de force: researching the “Human Complement,” a biochemical complex that plays a crucial role in body immunity.

Janatová is happy knowing her research was of an immense value. She was often told by Janata, her spouse at the time, “The things you did accomplish were like pearls in a heap of sand.”

Not all exiled scientists ended up outside the country’s borders only by chance. Back in Czechoslovakia, Miloš Novotný’s refusal to join the Communist Party put the brakes on his career. When he left for the United States in 1969, he found a land of plenty.

“In the 1960s, America’s attitude toward science and technology was enormous. That was the place to be for people with ideas and knowledge,” he says.

Novotný started out as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Houston, where his boss, Albert Zlatkis, urged him go into academia.

“I said, ‘How can I fit in here with the guys coming with degrees from Princeton and Harvard and MIT? I’m from a faraway place nobody knows!’ and Zlatkis said, ‘This is America. Just do it,’ ” he says.

Novotný soon got a job at Indiana University, where he gained international recognition for his work. In 1975, he helped develop equipment for the Viking Mars landing, which sought to determine if there was life on the planet.

Today, the professor emeritus at the University of Indiana continues to work as director of the Institutes for Pheromone Research and the federally funded National Center for Glycomics and Glycoproteomics.

“If I hadn’t given my services to the U.S., I would never have joined the Mars project,” he said.

While for many exile was a personal hell, for these scientists, it was entrance into a land of opportunity.

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