New exhibition remembers first Czech Nobel Prize winner

Jaroslav Heyrovský

A new exhibition at Prague’s Karolinum marks 50 years since the first Nobel Prize in the history of Czechoslovakia. The exhibition ‘Pár Kapek’ or ‘The Story of the Mercury Drop’ remembers Jaroslav Heyrovský, who received the honour in December 1959 for a new invention in the field of chemistry – polarography.

Jaroslav Heyrovský was the father of electroanalytical chemistry, but first of all the inventor of the polarographic method: an electromechanical technique of analyzing solutions that measures the current flowing between two electrodes in the solution as well as the gradually increasing applied voltage in order to determine the concentration of a solute and its nature.

Jaroslav Heyrovský was born in Prague in December, 1890, and according to his son Michal, was interested in natural sciences from his early childhood:

“In school, my father was interested in physics, mathematics and astronomy. At that time, chemistry was not taught in schools. However, in 1944 Sir William Ramsay got a Nobel Prize for the discovery of rare gases and that was a great encouragement for my father. At the age of 14 he had already decided to study physical chemistry just like the Nobel Prize laureate.”

From ‘The Story of the Mercury Drop’ exhibition
Indeed Jaroslav Heyrovský went on to study chemistry under Sir William Ramsay at University College in London, after first obtaining his degree at Charles University in Prague. During the First World War, he worked in a military hospital as a dispensing chemist and radiologist. When the war ended he focused on the development of a new branch of electrochemistry.

After his discovery of polarography, which dates back to 1922, he founded a polarographic school at Charles University, before later directing the Polarographic Institute at the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences. In that way Czechoslovakia became an international centre for research in the new method which found wide applications in fields such as medicine, food chemistry or environmental protection.

Jaroslav Heyrovský received the Nobel Prize more than 30 years after he made his discovery, in 1959. When he went to pick up his prize, his family had to stay at home, because the Communist regime feared that he wouldn’t come back. Michal Heyrovský again:

“We only saw the ceremony afterwards, on a film our father brought back from Sweden. We heard it on the radio, but we couldn’t watch in on the television. We had to wait for our father to tell us what it was like. So we only celebrated afterwards, when he came back.”

The exhibition at Prague’s Karolinum runs until the 18th of December.