History of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences

There have been several projects since the late 18th century to found an organization modernizing the Hungarian mother tongue, and bind Hungarian figures active in writing science and literature in Hungarian. In an authoritarian feudal society, however, initiatives taken up by intellectuals were bound to remain echoless until some members of the society’s elite did not follow suit.

Founding and framework-making (1825–1830)

On November 3rd, 1825 at the district session of the lower house of the Pozsony Diet, Pál Felsőbüki Nagy, a leading figure of the estate-opposition raged against the top aristocrats who were criminally disinterested in national culture or the native tongue. Still under the influence of this reproach, from the rows of those listening, „Young Count Széchenyi, Hungarian mounted captain made this recommendation: Dear Statuses and Estates! Although I am in no way great, still I am wealthy; that is why I recommend a whole year’s portion of my income to augment my national language, so that the channeling and ordering of that should depend on the nation’s diet.”

Széchenyi’s donation of some 60 thousand Forints was in no way capricious or solitary. Following the footsteps of his father’s grounding of the National Museum, spurred by a sense of duty and vocation, he had been looking for action for years. Reaction to his speech in the Pozsony Diet shows that the founding may have been an organized action by several of them. Following in the footsteps of Széchenyi, several young noblemen including György Károlyi, György Andrássy, Ábrahám Vay and others made their offers one after the other. As to the offer of Count József Teleki made in 1826 – the valuable, 30 000-piece library of his family - it laid the groundwork for today’s Library of the Academy.

The founding of the association Learned Society was promptly enacted by the Diet in XI. 1827, entitled „The learned society or Hungarian Academy aiming to educate domestic language”. The institution called officially Hungarian National Academy after 1845, started its work in 1830, after its basic ruling was worked out and upheld by the King. The 25-strong Board involving mainly the high gentry and high priests was to manage the estate of the association, appoint its first 23 members, elect its officials. The first president became the historian Count József Teleki, his deputy was István Széchenyi. A pivotal role was played by the secretary; this post was filled in the first half a century by Gábor Döbrentei, Ferenc Toldy, László Szalay, and János Arany. The first General Assembly was held on February 4, 1831. Until its headquarters were built, it rented some rooms in the Károlyi-Trattner house (today’s 3, Petőfi Sándor utca), while its general assemblies were held at Pest’s County Hall.

The creation of a Hungarian language norm. The Age of Reform (1831–1848)

Standing in the centre of the new institution was at first the purification of the Hungarian language. The very first results of its activities were the integration of Hungarian spelling and the fixing of Hungarian grammar. It published the first regulation of orthography (1832), the descriptive Hungarian grammar (1846), and the definitive dictionary (1862).

The Learned Society soon became the principal organiser of intellectual life; its six classes (linguist, philosophy, history, mathematics, legal and natural science) were publishing competitions in all sciences cultivated in Hungary, published books, and even paid its ordinary members. Its journal, Tudománytár (Scope of Knowledge) transmitted foreign scientific achievements in Hungarian. Weekly smaller assemblies were used to make individual productions and new literary works known, from the mid-forties on these were advertised in sittings for its six classes.

Closed supervision and financial increase. Absolutism (1849–1867)

A large part of academicians were at once public figures. In the 1840s, the Government saw an ally of liberal reform oppositionists in the strictly politics-free body. This, too, had a part to play in the activity and autonomy of the Academy being strongly curtailed, in fact, even its activities were tied to a modification of its basic statutes. The modification strengthening governmental influences finally occurred in 1858. After an interruption of 10 years it was now that a new General Assembly was held where the markedly diminished membership was duly completed.

Heralding a re-birth at the end of the decade was the 80-thousand-forint pledge of Baron Simon Sina followed by a nationwide collection towards the building of the Academy’s headquarters. The palace in a neo-renaissance style, built from the draughts of Friedrich August Stüler by Miklós Ybl and Antal Skalnitzky, was inaugurated on 11 December, 1865. The council rooms, the library and its reading room, the collection of arts had all improved by leaps and bounds the possibilities of scientific work.

A focal point of activities in the natural and applied sciences was the transmission and vogue of foreign results. The social sciences were expected to recover the past and present of the country, and help the process of ongoing bourgois civilization.

The development of Hungarian science (1867–1918)

The natonal self-government regained through the Compromise had secured more advantageous conditions of work for the Academy. A first sign of that was that it received state support.The new basic rules adopted in 1869 (and left standing until 1945) had ridden the Academy of the state patronizing forced upon it in 1858. The role of those doing science had grown: from now on, half the members of the board of directors were chosen from among themselves. The corporate body had also changed: instead of the six so far, from now on only three classes were made to put new members into (language, aesthetics, philosophy; science of society and history; and mathematics and natural sciences).

What with the strengthening of domestic science, the Academy had built more and more many-sided relations with the international system of science. Its members had taken part at international congresses more and more often; it had received the greatest foreign scientists as its honorary members; in 1900, it had become a founding member of the International Alliance of Academies.

Although the forces of a scientific life were held together during the decades of dualism by the Academy, without an institution or substantial financial basis it could only play a role in competition in the social sciences, or giving assistance to book publishing. As to the natural sciences, it could only influence research through the qualification and valuation of results. A sizable number of the international results were born in university departments, and the new scientific institutions serving the needs of economic-social modernization had arisen as state institutions. Many new technical institutions had also come into being; their importance enhanced by the fact that it was most often these that had created the journal of their particular branch of science. The popularization of some new branches, like psychology or sociology, had occurred expressly outside the academic (and university) institutions. The Academy had often been criticised, particularly since the turn of the century, for becoming an institution turning away from timely issues and closing down – not without a reason. It was mainly its members active in the natural sciences who had produced scientific accomplishments.

The diminishing of its practical usefulness had hardly touched the institution’s standing in the eyes of the public opinion. The 60 ordinary, 152 corresponding and 24 honorary members of the three classes were still enjoying a high status both in science and society. The fact that in the decades of dualism each of its presidents (József Eötvös, Menyhért Lónyay, Ágoston Trefort, Loránd Eötvös, Albert Berzeviczy) had also filled some ministerial post was much more the sign of the body’s authority than a sign of state control.

In a revolution, in a proletarian dictatorship (1918–1919)

The bourgeois democratic government standing up after the 1918 October revolution did not deal with the Academy: neither did it have the time, nor did it have a science policy conception. For the Council Government standing up in 1919 March, on the contrary, everything national and conservative was suspicious and fit to be annihilated, for the Council leaders were burning in the fever of changing society. In addition, the Academy with its rejection of the natural sciences gaining more and more ground, could be seen as an obsolete, anachronistic institution. With its Decree of 14 April, the People’s Comissariat for Public Education suspended the operation of the Academy – with the promise of a restructuring as soon as possible. That, however, never came to pass, and the Academy continued its activities in an unchanged form after the fall of the proletarian dictatorship.

In the Horthy regime (1920–1944)

After the war and revolutions, the Academy’s work restarted with a lot of difficulty for war inflation had consumed much of its assets. The institution was supported with a state subsidy administered by Count Kunó Klebelsberg for he wished to offer culture and science a great role in the reconstruction of the country. It did not get its financial stability back until the late 1920s when Count Ferenc Vigyázó left his entire estate to it. A yearly 500-600 thousand Pengős (out of the landed estate, real estate, cash, securities and immovables that were worth 16 million) were spent on science: on aiding research, prizes, and book publishing.

A peculiar duality was characteristic of the Academy between the two wars. Its spirituality and leadership had stubbornly preserved its obsolete conservatism manifesting itself primarily in the rejection of the natural sciences. Another bad thing being that the support for research was distributed mechanically among the 6 sub-divisions of the 3 classes. Thus, worldwide successful sciences like chemistry, biology, medicine or engineering couldn’t get more than a sixth of what the Natural Science subdivision could offer. At the same time, some rightly world-famous natural scientists got into the membership of the Academy, like the first domestic Nobel Prize medalist, biochemist Albert Szent-Györgyi, mechanical engineer Kálmán Kandó, or chemist Géza Zemplén. During this same period, Hungarian scientism suffered an immeasurable loss due to the shadow cast by the anti-Semitic ideology of the age. Many were forced to leave the country and continue their studies and research activities abroad after the so-called Numerus Clausus law was passed in 1920. While countless talents who decided to remain were lost forever for science.

Cautious reforms on the brink of liquidation (1945–1948)

The institution more than 120 years old had gotten on the brink of cessation after World War II from several angles. Its financial situation again became untenable: the lands it had inherited from the Vigyázó estate were completely used up and distributed during the division of land (1945); its money and securities melted during the inflation (1946), its blocks of flats were naturalized (1948). At the same time, leaders of the institution were conscious of the danger coming first from the Hungarian Communist Party, and later from its successor, the power-acquiring Hungarian Workers’ Party.

A part of the membership of the Academy were also revolting: those wanting true reforms, including Albert Szent-Györgyi and Zoltán Bay, had formed an Academy of Natural Sciences outside the MTA in the summer of 1945. Following some heavy debates, a compromise was reached in 1946: the Academy enrolled the non-academician members of the Academy of Natural Sciences, and changed its class structure unchanged since 1891: leaving the first two classes unchanged, it converted the III. class into one including Mathematics, physics, chemisty, and engineering, and a new IV. class was formed to cater for Biology and medical sciences.

A body of scientists and/or an organ of government. The socialist age (1948–1989)

The chance of the Academy being dissolved became a political threat in 1948 when the Hungarian Workers’ Party, which wanted „to establish the uppermost directing organ of Hungarian science”, had stood up the Hungarian Scientific Council, an organ of government, a ministry of science as against the Academy dragging on a yearly 100 000 forint state subsidy. The choice between „radical innovation versus the traditions” was a compromise that offered a radically changed Academy into the new system of political and institutional setup.

The Law of XXVII. of 1949 had transformed the scientists’ body into a Soviet type Academy when it melted MTA with the Hungarian Scientific Council. Thus, the Academy had gotten a state power role, unknown earlier to its organization and functioning; „it must direct in the topmost degree the cultivation of theoretical and applied sciences”. It now had to work out a scientific plan, secure a science reinforcement, a new, unified and centralized system of scientific qualification, cater a unified, centralized system of scientific qualification, the supervision of science societies, and the steering of the publishing of scientific books and journals.

It was in the Soviet style of „democratic centralism” that the set-up of the Academy’s organisation was changed: resolutions were made by the Presidium rather than the General Assembly; and even in class affairs it was the Presidium rather than the vote of membership that counted. With a new Basic ruling the number of academicians was decreased from 257 to 131 (this included the cessation of the sub-class of Literature which brought an end to the Academic representation of literary people), and even in matters concerning classes it was the Presidium rather than the votes of members that counted. With a new Basic ruling the number of academicians was decreased from 257 to 131 by eliminating the sub-class of Fine Arts, practically excluding all artists from the Academy, while the majority of current members (122) were declared „conferring” members, that is, were practically excluded.

The number of classes was six in 1949 which during the period extended itself step by step to ten, with a growing weight of the natural sciences. The network of the Academy’s research institutions was created in 1950-1960. Thus, in a great part of the age the Academy contributed to the development of Hungarian science not just by the individual performance of its members, but also by the thousands of scientists working in dozens of research institutes.

In the socialist period, terminating overlaps of scope and pouring new contents into the post of general secretary, the Decree 41. of 1969 issued by the Presidential Committee of the Hungarian People’s Republic ordered a double leadership for the Academy. The President as the leader of the scientific body was chosen by the General Assembly, and he was responsible to it for his actions. The head of the technical organ, the secretary-in-chief, from now on, was appointed by the Government to whom he was responsible. Thus, the Academy remained united according to its form, as far as structure was concerned, however, it broke into two parts.

After a change of the political system (1990–)

At the end of the 1980s, a new reform process started at the Academy. Still before the systemic changes, the General Assembly in 1989 had rehabilitated academicians unlawfully excluded from the Academy in 1949. As another way of making good, in 1992, a body of creative artists had founded the Széchenyi Literary and Artistic Academy as an indepenedent but self-sufficient institution.

An essential change in the Academy’s structure was brought by Law XL. of 1994 which had designated the legal status of the Academy as „a public body working as a legal personality on a principle of self-government”, extending the lines of the public body from academicians to everyone holding a scientific degree. The main organ of the scientific public body is the General Assembly which has academicians and 200 elected members of the public body as its members.

The 11 scientific sections of the Academy operate many scientific committees. The Academy’s Doctoral Council, in its turn, may profer the title „Doctor of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences” to the best scholars. The material conditions of operation are secured mainly by the central budget, and also by grants and foundations.

Zoltán Fónagy – János Pótó

Translated by Miklós Hernádi