John Bela (János Béla) Polya
|First name||John Bela (János Béla)|
|Country of Origin||HUNGARY|
|Date of Birth||1914|
|Year of Arrival in Australia||1939|
|Submitted by||Attila Urmenyhazi|
John Bela Polya was the son of Dr. Jenő (Eugene) Pólya a university professor & famous surgeon (Polya Gastrectomy operation) & Livia Polya from a gifted, orthodox Jewish family. The Polya family was assimilatory and secular, changing their name to Pólya from Pollak in about 1880 and converted to Catholicism.
John Polya studied at a Catholic Piarist school in Budapest which had Jewish, Presbyterian & Muslim as well as Catholic students. Then Zürich in the 1930s to study chemistry at the renowned Eidgenössische Technischen Hochschule. In 1936 he completed his tertiary studies at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. From 1937 to 1939 John was a Rockefeller Scholar in Organic Chemistry at the University of Manchester & then Imperial College, London. He was acutely aware of the Nazi threat to Jews. Siblings Susie & Michael left Hungary before the war for America & Australia respectively. His father visited America and was urged by medical colleagues to remain in the USA. Confident in his eminent professional position he returned to Budapest but was murdered by the Nazis in December 1944 just prior to liberation. John’s mother & younger sister survived the Holocaust in Hungary & after the war emigrated to Australia. The 1930’s to early-40’s saw the arrival of the highly educated Hungarian elite, mainly Jewry fleeing repression against them imposed by a Hungarian government compliant with Nazi demands.
John arrived in Sydney from the UK in 1939. He initially worked as a chemist for Sir Edward Hallstrom (Hallstrom Pty. Ltd, refrigerators) (1939-1940). He then moved to Melbourne & worked (1940/45)as an industrial chemist for the well-known chemist, entrepreneur, wine expert and humanist Oscar Mendelsohn. His attempt to enlist failed because of his ‘reserve occupation’. He subsequently worked (45/46)for the Munitions Supply Laboratories at Maribyrnong, Melbourne, arising from his discovery of the chemical basis of premature corrosion in RAAF planes. His stellar academic career took off from 1946 when appointed Lecturer in Organic Chemistry at the University of Tasmania. At the time, he was staunchly opposed to the fluoridation of Australia’s drinking water. He published ‘Are We Safe. A layman’s guide to public health’ (Cheshire, Melbourne 1964). In 1952 he received Doctor of Science (DSc) award. Between 1955 and 1979 John held the Associate Professorship of Chemistry at the same university until retirement at 65 and eventual relocation to Melbourne.
John married Robin Barker in 1940 & they remained happily married until his death in 1992. A daughter Michal was born in 1941 & a son Gideon in 1944. Further children were born in Tasmania, Rosemary (1948), John (1955) and David (1960). All the children graduated from university with a scientific leaning; Michal (BSc, DipEd, mathematics teacher), Gideon (BSc, PhD, biochemistry academic), Rosemary (BA, BSc, DipEd, ALA, teacher, librarian), John (BMus, mathematics & computing teacher) & David (BSc, PhD, geology academic).
John believed in the responsibility of scientists to speak out in the public interest. After leaving behind a brilliant university career of 31 years at the University of Tasmania, in 1977-78 he became the President of the Royal Australian Chemical Institute, Tasmania branch. In 1978-79 his last career position was of nationwide importance as Chairman of the Organic Chemistry Division of the Royal Australian Chemical Institute. He was highly regarded, respected & fondly remembered by all his former chemistry & pharmacy students at the University of Tasmania where he served for 31 years. John the academic & scientist was known to be very passionate & opinionated in his professorial & scientific circle who spoke bluntly, freely, entirely without fear of consequences. He was an extraordinarily gifted, multilingual polemist with deep interests in philology, science, philosophy, theology, literature & music. He passed on ‘the primacy of things of the mind’ to his children. He was also a great cook. He had a great love for Jewish culture as reflected in gastronomy, music, humour and literature.
Overall, he made a major contribution to chemical research and chemical education in Australia. He published over 120 scholarly works & supervised numerous research students. With Dr Kitty Got (a Jewish Hungarian refugee to Australia in 1956) he introduced the teaching of biochemistry to the Chemistry Department. He notably encouraged women scientists. The man believed that a vital truth from the Jewish experience was the importance of ‘being different’, which he perceived as contributing to a better and culturally richer humanity. He died on 15 December 1992 in Melbourne.