Hungarian professor to receive award from home

Professor of organic chemistry George Olah, Nobel-Laureate and founding director of USC’s Loker Hydrocarbon Research Institute, will receive the Széchenyi-nagydíj Prize tonight from Viktor Orbán, the prime minister of Hungary.

The award is given to those who have made an outstanding contribution to academic life in Hungary and will be presented by Professor József Pálinkás, president of the Hungarian Academy of Science.

Olah described the Széchenyi Nagydíj as a lifetime achievement award given only in special cases.

“This award is not something I got for work,” Olah said. “This is recognition for my lifetime effort. Since the Communist regime was thrown off, I tried to help the development of Hungarian science and higher education.”

Olah was born in Budapest, Hungary, and attended Budapest University of Technology and Economics, where he first studied and later taught. He fled Hungary with his family and his research group during the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, and moved to England, Canada and finally the United States, where he became a naturalized citizen in 1971.

“It’s basically honoring a long-lost son,” said Professor G.K. Surya Prakash, one of Olah’s former graduate students and the current George A. and Judith A. Olah Nobel Laureate Chair in Hydrocarbon Chemistry at USC. “[Hungary’s] trying to recognize its own heroes.”

Despite fleeing Hungary more than 50 years ago, Olah is grateful that his home country is honoring him.

“I am not one for publicity, but I got the phone call inquiring whether I would be willing to accept this and I expressed my gratitude to my native country that they have not forgotten me,” Olah said. “I am an American of Hungarian origins, but I still have a very strong feeling for my native county. When my native country was freed after a very long period of being dominated by the Soviet empire, in my small way I tried to help.”

Olah came to USC in 1977, bringing his knowledge and desire to learn more about chemistry. He also received the 1994 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

“He is one of the chemists who has ideas first,” said Robert Aniszfeld, one of Olah’s former graduate and postdoctoral students and the current managing director of the Loker Hydrocarbon Research Institute. “There are types of scientists who collect and analyze data and then one day, something pops. George is the kind of chemist who has an idea of how a reaction should work beforehand.”

Olah has contributed more than 150 patents and 1,500 publications, including 20 books, to the academic community. He has taught more than 250 doctorate students.

“I am very proud of my scientific family,” Olah said. “As a professor, the greatest satisfaction is to see his or her students make progress in their chosen fields.”