"Proud of being humble" - A personal note on the legacy of Oleh Hornykiewicz

" I am only proud of being humble ", Oleh Hornykiewicz (1926-2020)

Personally, I have to deeply thank Oleh, not only for his memories and the time he was willing to spend with a young scientist like me, but also for a timely reminder restoring faith in what makes a great scientist. A reminder that a successful scientist is not measured by the prizes he or she acquires, nor for the low-hanging fruits they collect because they can. A scientist is measured by those moments of profound breakthrough discoveries that ripple and reshape the landscape of science. Those are the moments of which you can be really proud to have achieved in your lifetime. And this is the story of one of those moments....

Back in 2012, having recently received my PhD from Trinity College in Dublin, I took up a Post-Doc in Vienna. Within the halls of the Center for Brain Research, where Karl Landsteiner discovered human blood groups, I encountered a late octogenarian whom I believed to be from a similar time period as Landsteiner. Intrigued by his almost daily presence at the center, I asked my new colleagues of who that gentleman may be and what the heck was he doing here? After more enquiries I finally was able to spell his name correctly to allow a google search. It turned out to be Oleh Hornykiewicz, a scientist who revolutionized Parkinson's Disease (PD) treatment and who had such a tremendous and lasting positive impact on so many patients suffering from this debilitating disease. A scientist with whom I had the pleasure of many conversations throughout my years in Vienna. A scientist of old who shall not be remembered as someone who "should have received the noble prize" but for the outstanding scientist and person, he was.

(left) Oleh Hornykiewicz and (right) Walther Birkmayer
who solved a unique mystery underlying Parkinsons Disease

Hornykiewicz and fellow colleagues like Walther Birkmayer described for the first time the absence of the neurotransmitter, dopamine, specifically in the substantia nigra of patients afflicted by PD, thereby laying a new foundation for PD research and treatment to this day. However, as so often happens, breakthroughs in science take their time and are often met with skepticism from fellow peers. So Oleh had to go one step further. Being in Vienna in the early 1960’s with health regulations less stringent than today, an idea started to form in Oleh's brain when he glimpsed a long-forgotten bottle of L-Dopa (a precursor to Dopamine) on a shelf within the Department of Pharmacology. L-Dopa in hand, he walked across the street to his colleague and clinician Walther Birkmayer convincing him to give it a try on his unfortunate patients with PD. One may have to remember that patients of those days were in terrible shape – unable to move or control their movements, among their many other debilitating symptoms. A few days later they were ready for the first injection of L-Dopa ever to take place, simultaneously anxious and hopeful to observe the outcome.

What happened next I will remember solely due to the delight and joy on the face of a 90-year old Oleh Hornykiewicz recalling a glimpse of history. A memory for which he was immensely grateful. Oleh had a tremendous memory and remembered my name after the first time he heard it, later telling me that it reminded him of a long-foreclosed Viennese Cafe and Wine House for which he had fond memories. Coincidently the namesake Cafe that saved my grandfather from certain death in a Russian POW camp. My grandfather could convincingly assure the guard, who had similar fond memories of the place, that he is closely related to the owners - he wasn't - but could so gain double-rations and better treatment that eventually should save his life.

Almost immediately following the injections it became clear that the highly experimental treatment alleviated the symptoms of PD, it became a key moment in Oleh's life. A moment for which every scientist strives, one that trumps all prizes. A moment that rewards you for all the hard work and sacrifices. The magic of science happens, when tremor stricken and bed-ridden patients regain their motor control and are able to stand up and walk again. A joy of the moment that should stay with Oleh forever and which he had the pleasure to encounter many times over in Austria and later in his many successful years in Toronto. Canada should become his home for many years, where most of his family now reside and where on the occasion of his 90s birthday President Trudeau personally thanked him for his achievements in Science.

I am deeply saddened by his passing and my sincerest condolences go out to his family and close friends. I personally will remember him for who he was, for what he stood for and for what we as scientists should aim to be.

With deepest sympathy,

Johannes Passecker



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