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  • Ilinca Stroe

Romania’s Treasures: the Scientists

Scientists tend to be eccentric figures. Especially in popularisation articles like this one. Some Romanian scientists over the last two centuries or so have made no exception to that cliché, while others have stuck to the more “serious” image of the “proper academic”. Supposing we were wandering through the rooms (i.e. scientific fields) of some Madame Tussaud-style House of Romanian Scientists, let’s visit both types of figures.

In computer science, Professor of Software Engineering Florin Popenţiu Vlădicescu has been dealing with software reliability and risk analysis in software theory and applications, lecturing at City University London, École nationale supérieure des telecommunications in Paris, or the Technical University of Denmark. He has also been involved in NATO research projects, the EU Horizon 2020 programme, reports on higher education around the world, as a UNESCO Expert since 2009, and, perhaps surprisingly, the running of the Charitable Trust named after the first Romanian soprano to ever perform at La Scala (Milan, 1880), Elena Theodorini.

Back to computers, Braşov-born scholar Mihai Nadin, currently a University of Texas at Dallas Professor, has been tackling engineering and philosophical issues related to human-computer interaction in post-industrial societies. His Civilization of Illiteracy (Dresden University Press, 1997) predicted accurately computing-prompted changes like an economy of “ever-higher needs”, socialisation via networking, the digital acquisition of knowledge, the technology-enforced “new human condition” – all taking us to a post-literate world where “traditional literate habits of meaning-making” are replaced by the ever-proliferating complexity “of networking billions of people, artifacts, and human enterprises” [1]. If that, perchance, sounds like our world, well... it is, isn't it?

More mathematically inclined, Romanian-American Smith College Professor Ileana Streinu has done research in computational geometry and was awarded the David P. Robbins Prize from the American Mathematical Society for her “beautiful and highly original” algorithmic solution to the “carpenter’s rule problem” [2], with promising applications in robotics and the brand new field of biomathematics.

And Craiova-born MIT graduate late Mihai Pătraşcu (1982-2012) won the Presburger Award 2012 from the European Association for Theoretical Computer Science, for breaking “many old barriers on fundamental data structure problems, not only revitalising but also revolutionising a field that was almost silent for over a decade” [3].

Changing fields, in chemistry Berlin University PhD (1875) Alfons Oscar Saligny taught in the General and Applied Chemistry Department of (and was subsequently Head of) The School of Bridges and Roads, and carried out research into building materials such as concrete, iron and steel in a materials testing laboratory he had founded within the School, enabling the construction of some majestic

viaducts and bridges along the Danube, in southern Romania.

The city of Cluj (central Romania) seems to have been particularly beneficial to female chemists, as Cluj University PhD Raluca Ripan became the first woman to be awarded a doctorate in chemistry in Romania (1922); later, Professor Ripan conducted research into uranium production and gold recovery/processing technologies, and was granted membership in the French Society of Industrial Chemistry and the German Chemistry Society.

Still Cluj-based Professor Maria-Magdalena Zaharescu introduced in Romania and has then done groundbreaking research into the sol-gel method (whereby solid materials are produced out of small molecules); featured in Successful Women Ceramic and Glass Scientists and Engineers: 100 Inspirational Profiles (by Lynnette Madsen, 2016); and was appointed Knight of the Order of the Star of Romania by the Romanian Presidency in 2017.

Moving on, in biology Romanian Emil Racoviţă was arguably the country’s most daring explorer abroad, among the first in the world to develop an interest in Arctic life, and one of the few who, in his time, ventured to team up with Amundsen and 18 other crew on a scientific research expedition to Antarctica (1897-1899), the account of which can be watched here, with English subtitles. Undaunted by the Antarctic hardship, Racoviţă went on to experiment with diving long before ergonomic diving suits were invented (see the “Martian” in the picture), as well as with cave exploration, probing into about 1,400 caves in several countries, and subsequently founding the world’s first Speological Institute in Cluj (1920).

His fellow biologist Grigore Antipa, whom readers might be familiar with via the lively Bucharest museum named after him, did his graduate studies at Jena in Germany, scientific research in France and Italy, marine biology research during a 9-month expedition around the Black Sea, and opened up new avenues in hydrobiology. Antipa also drafted the first ecological fishery exploitation plan for the Danube Delta, supported by the Romanian Royal Family of the time, and introduced the use of dioramas in museum curatorship.

Relating back to the Antarctic vein set up by Racoviţă, biologist Florica Topârceanu (University of Bucharest PhD, 1999) has researched Antarctic aquatic viruses, promoted principles of ecological research work in Antarctica, and helped consolidate the community of Antarctic studies in Romania, being “the primary biological scientist on the first Romanian National Antarctica Expedition” in 2005-2006, as well as “the first Romanian woman biologist to study life in Antarctica” [4].

When it comes to the field of physics, Leipzig- and Paris-educated “founding father” Emanoil Bacaloglu, the first to produce scientific papers and render specific terminology in the field into Romanian, should definitely be mentioned. While as a physicist Bacaloglu co-founded the Society of Physical Sciences in Romania (1890), as a social activist he took part in the 1848 Revolution, championing the coming of age as an independent national state of Wallachia and Moldavia, and supporting the development of capitalism and of materialist interpretations of scientific phenomena. If you’re in Bucharest and curious to see this trailblazing figure’s house, a historic building, go to no. 9 on centric Popa Soare Street and have a look.

Perhaps less revolutionary, nuclear physicist and WWI veteran Horia Hulubei (PhD at Paris-Sorbonne University in 1933, with Marie Curie herself as one of the examiners!) taught “elegant and clear lectures” [5] on physics at the Universities of Iaşi and Bucharest, founded and chaired the Institute of Atomic Physics in Bucharest. Reportedly, he was the first in the world to obtain X-ray spectra in gas using a spectrometer of his own making. But what he seems to have been most proud of was the growth, locally, of a new generation of “eminent physicists” to “ensure tomorrow’s team of experts in the field” [6]. Currently, the National Institute for Physics and Nuclear Engineering in Romania, which bears Hulubei’s name, is home to one of four Eastern European pillars of the Extreme Light Infrastructure (ELI) laser facility.

As for theoretical physics, Babeş-Bolyai University Professor Basarab Nicolescu (PhD Université Pierre et Marie Curie, Paris, 1972) is an honorary member of the French Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique and the co-founder, in 1992, of the UNESCO Study Group on Transdisciplinarity. A great supporter of interdisciplinary approaches reconciling science and the humanities, Professor Nicolescu’s main tenet, in his Manifesto of Transdisciplinarity, is that “binary logic, the logic underlying most of our social, economic, and political institutions, is not sufficient to encompass . . . all human situations”; instead, a “logic of the included middle” is required to obtain “unity of knowledge together with the unity of our being” [7].

{For a bit of an intermezzo, delicate readers are kindly asked to close their eyes to the piece of news below. For there will be blood. Artificial blood. Made in Romania.}

In the field of medicine, physiologist Francisc Iosif Rainer studied medicine at the University of Bucharest and then taught anatomy at Bucharest and Iaşi. He participated in anti-tuberculosis, anti-cholera and anti-syphilis campaigns in rural areas around Romania, and served as a Colonel in the medical service during WWI, setting up, together with his wife Marta (Romania’s first female surgeon) surgical wards and temporary hospitals during the German occupation of Bucharest (1916-1918). In many ways, Rainer was a man ahead of his time, with his interdisciplinary approach to teaching medicine (he had his medical students attend regular lectures on Romanian language and literature), his eccentric interest in biological anthropology (he conducted craniometry on the mediaeval remains at Curtea de Argeş and collected around 6,000 skulls and other bone relics), and his admirable guts to state in his 1939 public lectures, when Romania was an ally of Nazy Germany, that, scientifically speaking, there is no Aryan “pure race” or racial hierarchy.

Like Rainer, anatomist and medical historian Victor Gomoiu graduated from the medical faculty of the University of Bucharest (1905). He studied eye disease among rural inhabitants and later managed the Techirghiol tuberculosis sanatorium, where he experimented with thalassotherapy and medicinal clay. His participation as a military physician in the Romanian campaign during WWI brought him the Order of the Crown (1917), the Order of the Star of Romania (1918) and the title of chevalier of the Legion of Honour (1922). Internationally, he served as Romania’s representative on the League of Nations committee for physical education, and in 1933 was elected Vice President of the International Society for the History of Medicine, with which he shared elements of ethnomedicine he’d collected from Romania. The communist regime established here in 1947 banned him from teaching and imprisoned him between 1950 and 1954.

For the position of (arguably) the most eccentric figure in the history of Romanian medicine, there is one man who qualifies impeccably: forensic scientist Nicolae Minovici. The founder of the Legal Medicine Association of Romania and ex-mayor of the town of Băneasa, where his stylish villa was converted into an arts museum, Minovici studied medicine at Bucharest and Berlin, completed his PhD thesis (1898) on the “connections between tattooing and criminal behavior”, and carried out extensive “research on the effects of hanging on the human body” [8]. As part of that research, he performed around 12 hanging experiments on himself, the longest of which lasted 25 seconds, to gauge effects such as vision disturbances, ringing in the ears and pain while choking.

Change of topic? Of course. Mathematics. In this field, Romanian-Armenian mathematician and astronomer Spiru Haret (PhD at the Sorbonne in Paris, 1878) stands out as yet another “founding father”: his research on celestial mechanics was acknowledged by naming a Moon crater after him, his work as a Minister of Education basically created the public education system in Romania, and his social commitment led him to help found, in 1910, the classy Astronomical Observatory in Bucharest (which is well worth a visit when you’re in town).

Such giant achievements risk dwarfing the contribution of Romanian-American mathematician and economist Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen. However, the Constanţa-born scientist’s seminal work, The Entropy Law and the Economic Process (1971) highlighted one of those core ideas which can make or unmake our world today: namely, that “all natural resources are irreversibly degraded when put to use in economic activity” [9]. Thus, Georgescu was a “paradigm founder” who helped establish “ecological economics” as a distinct academic sub-discipline in the 1980s, which almost got him shortlisted for Economics Nobel Prize nominations.

Finally, Bucharest-born mathematician Alexandra Bellow, ex-wife to Literature Nobel Prize winner Saul Bellow, herself a Yale University PhD (1959) and Northwestern University Professor of Mathematics (1967-1996), did research in lifting theory, ergodic theory, probability and analysis. She won the Fairchild Distinguished Scholar Award from Caltech (1980), the Humboldt Prize from Bonn-based Alexander von Humboldt Foundation (1987), and an international conference was organised in her honour, on her retirement, at Northwestern University (1997).

Now, having reviewed all of these meritorious figures spanning almost two centuries of Romanian Science, let us zoom in on a fine, fine trio.

George Emil Palade – cell biologist, Physiology and Medicine Nobel Prize winner

Born: 19 November 1912

Died: 8 October 2008

Career highlights

* 1940: graduated from the “Carol Davila” School of Medicine in Bucharest

* 1942-1945: he served in the Medical Corps of the Romanian Army

* 1946: married to industrialist Nicolae Malaxa’s daughter Irina and emigrated to the USA

* 1952: became a US citizen

* 1958-1973: worked at the Rockefeller Institute

* 1970: he was the co-winner of the Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize from Columbia University

* 1974: he was the co-winner of the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine, awarded for his “discoveries concerning the structural and functional organisation of the cell” [10]

* 1973-1990: was Professor of Medicine at Yale University Medical School

* 1981: became a founding member of the World Cultural Council

* 1988: was elected an Honorary Member of the American-Romanian Academy of Arts and Sciences

* 1990-2008: Professor Emeritus of Medicine at University of California, San Diego

* 2007: was awarded the Order of the Star of Romania by the Romanian Presidency

* 2009: the chemistry Nobel Prize is awarded to three American and Israeli researchers "for studies of the structure and function of the ribosome", also discovered by Palade [11]


* the "George Palade Professorship" in the Department of Cell Biology at Yale University

* 2012: a silver numismatic coin depicting Palade was issued by the National Bank of Romania

He was...

a brilliant student with impressive concentration, memory and determination; a handsome, dignified young man with intense eyes and a sense of humour; wary of returning to Romania during communism, because he feared, “I could’ve ended up in prison”; appreciative of exile “as a challenge to show what you’re capable of” [12].

Grigore Moisil – mathematician, “the father of computer science in Romania”

Born: 10 January 1906 in Tulcea, south-east Romania

Died: 21 May 1973 in Ottawa, Canada

Career highlights

*1924: started undergraduate studies at the Civil Engineering School of the Polytechnic University of Bucharest, and at the Mathematics School of the University of Bucharest

* 1929: dropped out from the Polytechnic University, completed his PhD in mathematics and published his doctoral thesis with the Gauthier-Villars publishing house in Paris

* 1930-1931: studied mathematics at the University of Paris

* 1931: started teaching maths at the University of Iaşi, but left to take up a Rockefeller Foundation scholarship in Rome

* 1932-1941: held a teaching position at the University of Iaşi, where he taught the first modern algebra course in Romania

* 1941: became a Professor in the School of Mathematics at the University of Bucharest

* 1946-1948: was appointed plenipotentiary envoy to Ankara

* 1948: resumed teaching at the University of Bucharest

* 1949: became Head of the Mathematics Society

* 1957: became interested in computing and maths applications in a range of fields

* 1962: set up the Calculus Centre of the University of Bucharest

* 1964-1967: became a member of the Bologna Academy of Science and the Institute of Philosophy in Paris

* April 1973: went on a lecturing tour on mathematical logic around the US and Canada, with his wife Viorica

* 1996: was awarded posthumously the Computer Pioneer Award by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Computer Society (New York)

He was...

madly passionate about maths; scary to his siter because too intelligent; gifted with a fabulous sense of (wry) humour; uncannily able to find easily anything he needed in his chaotic study; happy to hum a tune or two when things went his way; a heavy smoker; a food lover, with favourites like polenta with cheese and sour cream, eggplant salad, papanşi and... ţuică (plum brandy) [13].

Florentina Mosora - biophysicist and actress

Born: 7 January 1940 in Cluj, central Romania

Died: 2 February 1996 in Liège, Belgium

Career highlights

*1959-1964: starred in “Băieţii noştri”/"Our Boys", “Post-restant”/"Poste Restante", “Sub cupola albastră”/"Under the Blue Arch" and “Dragoste la zero grade”/"Love at Zero Degrees"

* 1961: earned her Bachelor’s degree in biology

* 1967: earned her Bachelor’s degree in physics

* 1961-1967: worked as a researcher in the Biophysics Laboratory of the Faculty of Medicine in Bucharest

* 1971: completed her PhD in biophysics

* 1972: was appointed a lecturer at the Faculty of Biology, the University of Bucharest

* 1974-1979: taught at the University of Liège

* 1980: became a member of the Royal Society of Science in Liège

* 1981: was appointed “Officier de l’Ordre de Leopold II”

* 1982: became a member of the Academy of Science in New York

* 1988: became associate Professor in Biophysics at the University of Liège

* 1989: became President of the Institute of Marine Research and Air Sea Interaction in Brussels

* 1990: was appointed Head of the Oceanography Department at the University of Liège

* 1992: became “Commandeur de l’Ordre de la Couronne”

She was...

a perfectionist, according to her own husband; a beautiful popular actress who chose a career in science; adored by her students; a lover of life, beauty and water.

Now, are you ready for a real “mad scientist” demo? :)

Photo credits:

Notes & sources

[1] “Mihai Nadin.” Wikipedia. Accessed 19 June 2018. <>

[3] “Mihai Pătraşcu.” Wikipedia. Accessed 19 June 2018. <>

[4] “Florica Topârceanu.” Wikipedia. Accessed 19 June 2018. <>

[5] “Horia Hulubei.” Wikipedia. Accessed 19 June 2018. <>

[7] Voss, Karen-Claire. “Review Essay of Basarab Nicolescu’s Manifesto of Transdisciplinarity.” Accessed 19 June 2018. <>

[8] “Nicolae Minovici.” Wikipedia. Accessed 19 June 2018. <>

[9] “Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen.” Wikipedia. Accessed 19 June 2018. <>

[11] “George Emil Palade.” Wikipedia. Accessed 19 June 2018. <>

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