First Czech Nobel winner Heyrovský awarded 65 years ago

Jaroslav Heyrovský

Sixty-five years ago Czech scientist Jaroslav Heyrovský won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for his discovery and development of polarography, becoming the first Czech recipient of the prestigious award. The discovery, however, was made much earlier, on February 10, 1922.

The first polarograph | Photo: Heyrovský Institute of Physical Chemistry,  Czech Academy of Sciences

This Saturday marks 102 years since the invention of polarography, a pioneering method analysing substances in solutions, developed by Czech chemist Jaroslav Heyrovský.

Polarography is based on the relationship between an increasing current passing through a solution and the increasing voltage used to produce the current, and is used to analyse the types of substances in solutions as well as their quantities.

Two years later, Heyrovský created the first polarograph, together with the Japanese chemist Masuzo Shikata. It was an instrument that could record data automatically, and in great detail, as he described to Czech Radio:

“This modified polarographic method can be used to analyse a solution quickly, accurately and sensitively. It determines the traces of substances present in the solution at a dilution of one in a million. For example, in one drop of blood, one ten-millionth of a gram of lead.”

Květoslava Stejskalová | Photo: Barbora Navrátilová,  Radio Prague International

Květa Stejskalová from the Jaroslav Heyrovský Institute of Physical Chemistry of the Czech Academy of Sciences is trying to make sure that the legacy of the only Czech Nobel Prize winner in natural sciences is not forgotten. She explains what made the invention so special:

“It was shortly after the First World War and the world was still recovering. It needed analytical methods that could provide an answer to questions like what materials we have and how they can be used. And suddenly Heyrovsky came up with an electrochemical method that is much simpler than the five or so optical methods that were on the market at the time. It was fast, reliable and also much cheaper than the other ones.”

Jaroslav Heyrovský | Photo: Archiv výstavy Příběh kapky organizované ÚFCH J. Heyrovského AV ČR

Following his discovery, polarography began to be used in various industries to determine the composition of raw materials or products. It has been applied not only in medicine, but also in the food industry, and it is used, in some form, to this day, says Mrs. Stejskalová:

“It's a modified method that doesn't work with the classic dripping mercury electrode, but with other electrodes that are developed from the original Heyrovsky method. Polarography still has its place in applied research, especially in the development of various sensors that determine low concentrations of various substances in the environment. There are, of course, other methods that have surpassed it, but polarography and the methods developed with it still have their place in science.”

Jaroslav Heyrovský  (right) | Photo: Charles University

More than 30 years after his invention, in 1959, Jaroslav Heyrovský won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his discovery, which has influenced generations of scientists around the world.

Today, the Institute of Physical Chemistry of the Czech Academy of Sciences is named after Jaroslav Heyrovský, and experts from all corners of the planet continue to draw on his ideas.