The famous names behind Budapest's universities

Budapest’s three major universities, Eötvös Loránd, Semmelweisand Corvinus, are all named after three famous historical Hungarian figures. Let’s take a look at their storied lives.


Eötvös Loránd

Eötvös Loránd was an Austro- Hungarian physicist of Hungarian ethnic origin. Born in 1848 -  the year of the revolution - as the son of a liberal politician and writer, Eötvös was pushed by societal expectations to study law, but so the story goes he had little interest in the subject and devoted his time instead to lectures on natural science. He finally decided that he wanted to benefit from a scientific education abroad and moved to Heidelberg and also Königsberg to study physics.

Returning to Budapest as a professor, he quickly rose to be a leading figure on the Hungarian science scene for almost half a century. The work he’s most known for is his studies on gravity and capillarity - the ability of liquids to move through small spaces without external forces acting on them.

Eötvös didn’t just indulge the sciences, though, indeed he was a keen horse rider, mountaineer, rock climber, cyclist and photographer. He also had a close relationship with his father which is recorded in regular letters they exchanged.

From 1886, until his death in 1919, he taught at the then-named University of Budapest. In 1950, it was renamed Eötvös Loránd in his honour. Those keen to learn more are encouraged to visit the Loránd Eötvös museum.

Ignaz Semmelweis

Ignaz Semmelweis was a Hungarian doctor of German origin and was posthumously given the lofty title of the “saviour of mothers”. This was for his pioneering studies on antiseptic procedures, which were sadly ridiculed during his life and not fully appreciated until almost 20 years after his death when Louis Pasteur published his work on germ theory.

Semmelweis was born in 1818 in Budapest and in 1837 went on to study law in Vienna. For reasons unknown, he switched to medicine and went on specialize in obstetrics, eventually starting work at Vienna General Hospital.

It was during his work in free maternity clinics that he observed the differences in process that led to varying rates of puerperal fever between them. In one clinic, that was staffed by doctors that also conducted autopsies, he observed that the mortality rate was much higher. He hypothesised that germs were being carried from the cadavers to the mothers on the doctor's hands. He instigated better hygiene procedures in the clinic and almost overnight mortality rates dropped.

News of his discovery spread and he was initially excited at the prospect of reducing deaths worldwide. Sadly the medical community - which then thought that puerperal had many causes - thought his idea on the cause was too simplistic and rejected his work.

He was eventually shunned from the medical community and in later life he suffered a mental breakdown, speaking of nothing but puerperal fever and acting increasingly aggressively around colleagues that did not support him. He was eventually committed to an asylum during which he received a severe beating from guards. The injuries he received during this beating eventually became gangrenous and he died 2 weeks after being admitted from blood poisoning on August 13th, 1865.

After his death, his legacy was eventually restored and his work recognised. The prestigious medical school, Semmelweis University was named after him and his old house has been turned into the Semmelweis Medical History Museum. His body is also buried there.

Matthias Corvinus and Bibliotheca Corviniana

While Corvinus University is not strictly named after Matthias Corvinus, King of Hungary and Croatia between 1458 and 1490, it is named after the Bibliotheca Corviniana which he founded and was one of the most renowned libraries in the Renaissance world.

Corvinus was one of the most powerful kings of his time and a busy man through his reign, waging war in Bohemia and Austria, managing the might of the Ottoman empire and dealing with internal conflicts.

Most importantly, he was a big patron of the arts and a Rennaisance man, and Hungary was one of the first countries outside of Europe to embrace the movement. Poetry and music were a big part of his court and from 1460 onwards he was a big collector of books. It was this collection of 4,000 - 5000 words, mostly of Latin and Greek origin, that later went on to form the collection at the Bibliotheca Corviniana.

Today only about 650 works survive and they can be found in various libraries in Hungary and Europe. His body is buried in Székesfehérvár Cathedral, and if you’re ever in Cluj-Napoca in Romania, you can visit the house where he was born.