Although she passed away more than a year ago, the void that Eszter Kokas left behind has not been filled. With her death, our Association lost not only an Honorary President but also a world-renowned scientist, an exceptionally inspiring teacher, and a devoted member and friend. Her absence is felt especially painfully by those of us who live in the Chapel Hill, North Carolina area, where she spent the last nearly thirty years of her life and where we had ample opportunity to benefit from her extraordinary wisdom and her friendship.
Eszter Kokas was born November 20, 1903, in what then was the Highlands of Northern Hungary. Her parents were teachers of Hungarian language and literature, and thus her most important schooling was received in the parental home. She was the eldest of five children: four girls and a boy. After completing her elementary education in Körmöczbánya, Eszter was sent to boarding school in Debrecen. I will always remember her dramatic account of the years 1918-1919 when, as a result of the Treaties of Versailles, her home town became part of the newly formed Czechoslovakia and for several months the young girl was completely cut off from the rest of her family who now lived in a hostile foreign country. After these very difficult years, things became more peaceful and she finally earned an MD degree at the University of Debrecen in 1927. She already made up her mind in her student years to devote her life to medical research and teaching. She joined the Department of Physiology, directed by Professor Fritz Verzar, in Debrecen. Her scientific career took off spectacularly. Her elegant studies on the motility of intestinal villi led to the 1933 discovery (with G. Ludany) of one of the first gut hormones that they named Villikinin. This achievement ensured her place in textbooks of physiology up to this day. However, it took some 30 years for the field of “gut hormones” (i.e. the study of the multiple endocrine roles and functions of the gastrointestinal system) to “catch up” with the pioneering work of Dr. Kokas.
In 1935 Dr. Kokas transferred to the Department of Physiology of the University of Budapest where, in 1939, she became the first woman to become Privat Docent, a distinguished scientific title at the time.
During these years Dr. Kokas traveled widely and became familiar with the work of the best European centers of physiologic research. These included Berlin (1926, 1930-31), Lausanne (1927, 1928-29), Paris (1929) and London (1936-37). In addition to her native Hungarian she was fluent in five languages; German, English, French, Italian and Spanish.
This brilliant career, like many others, was shattered by the Soviet-communist takeover in Hungary. Although she never participated in politics, she was no longer allowed to continue her research and teach medical students. She was removed from her university position, was subjected to much harassment and persecution, and forced to accept positions in routine public health laboratories with no possibility for research. She left her beloved Hungary legally in 1958 and after a brief period as Visiting Professor in Basel, Switzerland, in 1958 she accepted an invitation from the newly formed Catholic University of Cordoba, Argentina to the post of Professor and Chairman of Physiology. With her exceptional talent, energy, and enthusiasm, in two short years she managed to develop a first rate teaching department. However, her real love was research, and thus in 1960 she accepted an invitation to join the Department of Physiology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Here, at an age when others are preparing to retire from active life, she re-established her laboratory, obtained an NIH grant which she continued to hold for over 15 years, rose quickly to the rank of Full Professor, became one of the most celebrated teachers of the Medical School, and finally retired with great distinction in 1975. She had published several books, laboratory manuals, and over 120 scientific papers, and taught physiology to thousands of medical students, among them hundreds of Hungarian physicians who now work in this country, many of the former and present members of the Hungarian Medical Association of America. As the final act of recognition at the end of an exemplary career, she received in 1983 from the faculty and alumni of the School of Medicine in Chapel Hill the University’s Distinguished Service Award.
Perhaps because of her commanding knowledge of her field, world- wide reputation as a scientist and teacher, her deep humanity, and her unswerving loyalty to Hungary and Hungarians, Eszter was sometimes lovingly referred to as “Magna Domina Hungarorum” or the “Grand Lady of Hungarians”. She was a long time member of The Hungarian Medical Association of America which bestowed upon her its highest award by electing her Honorary President.
Upon her passing we are comforted by the knowledge that the abundant harvest of Eszter Kokas’s long and productive life will forever enrich the archives of medical science as well as the hearts and minds of many of her former students, colleagues and friends.