Re-Discovering a Forgotten Treasure:

the Georg von Békésy Collection of Art Books


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Brief biography

photo of von BekesyGeorg von Békésy was born in Budapest, Hungary on June 3, 1899; he died in Honolulu on June 13, 1972. He was the only Nobel Prize winner to ever work at the University of Hawai'i. His hobby was collecting art objects and books about art. In 1961 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine for his research on the function of the cochlea in the mammalian hearing organ. For additional about him, see the sections of this exhibit on Békésy in Hawai'i, Békésy on Libraries, and articles about Békésy.

Békésy miscellanea

Photograph of von Békésy as a youth Passport photograph Békésy Photograph of von Békésy reading Von Békésy Photograph of von Békésy in his laboratory Von Békésy postal stamp

Photos of exhibit

Phase II Gallery
Main building, 1st floor
View from left

Phase II Gallery
Main building, 1st floor
View from right

Phase II Gallery
Main building, 1st floor
Exhibit case 1

Phase II Gallery
Main building, 1st floor
Exhibit case 2

Phase II Gallery
Main building, 1st floor
Exhibit case 3

Bridge Gallery

Selected art objects
Bridge Gallery

Display area
Bridge Gallery

Books and scientific instruments
Bridge Gallery

Books and scientific instrument
Bridge Gallery

Books and scientific instrument
Bridge Gallery

Portait, letters, documents ....
Bridge Gallery

Letters, passport, reprints, photographs ....
Bridge Gallery

Science books, Békésy Nobel postal stamp ....
Bridge Gallery

Békésy in Hawai'i
Bridge Gallery

Books, Hawai'i letters, medal, museum catalogs ....
Bridge Gallery

Békésy in his laboratory and his initials
Bridge Gallery

Békésy in Hawai'i

While at Harvard, Georg von Békésy won the Nobel Prize for physiology and medicine in 1961 for his studies on the inner ear and the process of hearing. His first trip to Hawai'i was in December of 1964 to lecture and conduct seminars. In June of 1965 he was a consultant at the Pacific Biomedical Research Center. He joined the University of Hawai'i in 1966 where he remained until his death in 1972. UH Presidents Thomas Hamilton welcomed von Békésy to campus, and Harlan Cleveland read an eulogy to him when he died.

UH Psychophysicist Professor A. Leonard Diamond and UH President Thomas Hamilton worked very hard to get a lab built for von Békésy. At the time the Hawaii State Legislature was loathe to approve funds for new UH buildings, but there was a rule that said you could add onto previously built buildings. So, the lab was added onto an old campus facilities building.

With the encouragement of Governor John A. Burns and the provision of an endowed chair by the Hawaiian Telephone Company, Georg von Békésy became the university's first Nobel Prize recipient and filled an academic chair as Professor of Sensory Sciences. He arrived in Honolulu on Sunday July 17th in 1966 at 5:10 pm. By July 19th he was at the new UH Laboratory of Sensory Sciences bringing along

  • 5,000 books (4800 pounds)
  • 8 foot lockers of research materials (8000 pounds)
  • 21 trunks of equipment. (1500 pounds)

The obvious question arises as to why von Békésy would leave Harvard. At the time they had a mandatory retirement age which he was approaching. But he described what is likely the key factor in his decision:

Unfortunately, while at Harvard a great tragedy for my research occurred when the tower of Memorial Hall burned down. My entire working place in the basement of Memorial Hall was flooded and I lost the most cherished writings and old books, that I collected after I left Hungary.

A month before he would arrive in Hawaii, he writes Dr. Leonard Diamond that "The question asked over and over again was why do I go to Honolulu? They all made the same point that Honolulu is a sort of colony and I will not be able to make any scientific work since most of them are interested in political performances and definitively not in science. Some of them were just smiling at the care I took to pack some of the equipment since they were convinced I will never have a chance to use them."

In his spare time von Békésy collected early, primitive and other art objects which he hung and displayed in his laboratories. He was fond of Asian art--Japan in particular. He always wanted to travel there, but never did. His move to Hawaii allowed him for the first time to become directly acquainted with Asian ways. Influential in introducing him to the Japanese community in Hawaii were the physiologist Yasuji Katsuki and the author Yasunari Kawabata (Nobel Laureate in Literature 1968), both visitors at the University of Hawaii for a time. Von Békésy and Kawabata became close friends, and both were awarded honorary doctorates from UH in June of 1969.

Excerpts about Hawaii from von Békésy letters:

Just three weeks ago we moved into a new building which was built as our laboratory. It is in a very beautiful, what they call, rainbow valley, and you can see the most colorful rainbows. It is the first time in my life that I can see butterflies from my window in the middle of December. There are at least ten different types. Naturally, there are some problems also, such as the quite unfriendly mosquitoes. But, otherwise, Hawaii is a completely new experience.

In 1970 he wrote:

I spent three years here and I think it is the most interesting place I have ever been. It is international to a degree which is almost hard to understand. There are groups from Asia, Australia, America, and Europe and they still are able to survive and respect each other. At the same time it forces me to realize that the whole way of thinking, working, taste, and so on, is completely different in the East and in the West. It cannot be erased by organizers or even by big wars. It is here, it is thousands and thousands of years old. I maybe know it better and realize it better than many other people because I collect old art objects and it took me years to understand the difference between Japanese ways of thinking and Chinese ways of thinking, that there is a real difference. There are so many cultures with their own histories and own ways to evaluate life ... It is in Hawaii where I realized first how complicated the world really is and how difficult it is to understand the other man's opinion, even if somebody does everything to understand it.
Eventually I decided to live in Hawaii ... the decision was a good one and in the last six years we have made a few measurements which I think are new. Hawaii is basically just as different from the mainland as Europe is from the United States. The United States is very impressive for anyone who comes from Europe because it is so large and varied. In the United States you can have almost anything that you want, it is only a question of money. It was not so in Europe. In Hawaii you cannot have anything you want, but you can have things that you never expected before. Living in paradise, as it turns out, is not a very simple thing. It is so beautiful that there is really too much beauty and too much color. It is well known that the nervous system is more sensitive to variations than to continuous stimuli because of the role of adaptation. The same holds true for the life circumstances.
The University of Hawaii is a new university and therefore tradition does not play any role. This can produce many differences. For instance when I first came to Hawaii I was very much surprised by the fact that between lectures the students walked on the grass of the campus and not on the beautifully planned roads. On the Harvard campus all the students walked on the roads, never on the grass. It took me a long time to explain this phenomenon. Obviously, the architect who designed the roads of the Hawaii campus did not know the different doors to the lecture halls, so the students had to make shortcuts.
Hawaii is half the world around from London, and I enjoy the difference between the cool, formal, unfriendly Londoner-Britishmen in contrast to the smiling Japanese I can find here. I am sure that is all the consequence of the temperature difference. Life seems to be much easier and natural here and not so tragic. I think people die here much easier too. But in spite of that, to die is quite expensive here also, since the whole place is an island, and, therefore, expensive.
Every Saturday, I visit Chinatown and study it from all the angles. I have to do that since I think it will disappear in one or two years, and I would have to go to Hong Kong to see the things you can see right now over here. Chinese life is extremely complicated and there are Chinese herb stores with, I think, at least two hundred different seeds. There is nothing more interesting than to talk with them because [of] their knowledge of nuts. ... The main reason is that a Chinese nut specialist is an old man and he studied his subject for many decades ...
... there is mainly one nuisance here in Hawaii, and that is the tourist. They want to enjoy life one hundred-ten percent for two weeks and there is nothing more interesting than to watch and analyze which is the best method to enjoy life. I have studied them now for six months, and I came to the conclusion that the best method to enjoy life is to look at the interesting art objects, and you would be surprised to see how different St. Ignazius looks under coconut trees.
Unfortunately, I have no success to lose my weight since the food in Hawaii is just excellent. There are a few Chinese and Japanese restaurants which are not visited by tourists but by their own people, and they are excellent.
Here I live in an extremely complicated place [faculty housing] overseeing Diamond Head, the sea, and the city and the clouds are so beautiful that they interfere with my scientific thinking. I hope to get accustomed to it, but it does not seem to work that way.

Prepared by Patricia Polanksy, this account is based on:

  • the comments of Dr. Robert Cole, Professor of Psychology and Director of the Lab
  • from various journal and newspaper articles:
    • [Eulogy by Harlan Cleveland], Honolulu Advertiser, July 15 1972
    • Georg von Békésy, "Some biophysical experiments from fifty years ago," Annual review of physiology, 1974, v. 36, p. 13, 15.
  • from The Georg von Békésy Collection: selected objects from the collection of Georg von Békésy bequeathed to the Nobel Foundation, edited by Jan Wirgin (Malmo: Allhems Forlag, 1974. 204 p., illus.). The introduction is by Dr. Floyd Ratliff [pp. 23-24]
  • and archival materials:
    • Georg von Békésy, "My experiences in research laboratories in Europe and Hungary from 1923 to 1945," unpublished 1970 manuscript (23 p.) -- held by Robert Cole
    • Library of Congress Manuscript Division, Papers of Georg von Békésy, boxes 10, 81, 114, and correspondence boxes 10-15:
      • VB letter to Mrs. B. Fitzgerald (Cambridge, MA), December 27, 1966
      • VB letter to Mrs. Maria Weissmann (London), December 16, 1966
      • VB letter to Dr. Glen Wever (Dept. Psychology, Princeton University), Dec.28, 1966
      • VB letter to Glen Wever, August 14, 1967
      • VB letter to Mr. and Mrs.Henry Kaiser, December 28, 1966
      • VB letter to Dr. Leonard Diamond, 4.June 1966
      • VB letter to Dr. Robert Hiatt, VP AA, May 9, 1966
      • VB letter to Len Diamond, May 13, 1966

Békésy on libraries

Looking backward always the question comes up, what did I learn at the university? In general people say they learned very, very little. I agree with that mainly because they just listen to too many lectures. I was convinced I needed a certain basic knowledge but after that I found out that all the knowledge is in the libraries and not in the heads of professors.

In discussing his work with organizing his laboratory and work with the students at the University of Hungary in Budapest, von Békésy says:

One of the biggest problems at that time was the library and the books. The library of the Institute was generally closed and the professor opened the cabinets with his own key. In spite of that, many books were missing. I made it clear to the students that the library belonged to them. They should select their own librarian and watch that no books got lost, because at that time they could not have been replaced. Some books did get lost and surprisingly in general it was the students of well to do parents who did not bring back the books. But even more surprising was that many of the lost books came back because the students knew from each other who had one left at home.
My scientific work here [at UH] was interesting. There were many surprises, for instance it was easier to get some books in Honolulu than it is to get them from the mainland because the [university] library in Honolulu is very well organized. But naturally on an island there are plenty of difficulties and somehow nobody knows what comes next.
My main concern before I decided to come here was the library of the University. I was convinced that if a library is second-rate, it would be impossible for me to do research. To my surprise the library service is excellent and, as far as I know, it was done by one administrator. [GvB letter to Mr. and Mrs.Henry Kaiser, December 28, 1966]

After complaining about the lab not being finished, the well-established administrative routines that waste energy and almost completely stop basic research, the poorly working air conditioners... von Békésy writes about the UH Library:

Fortunately, the library is so excellent that I am almost getting ready to write a booklet on "how we feel," since "how we hear" was already exhausted by Professor Meyer.
The library still is simply excellent and made it possible for me to read all the literature on the problems that I would like to experiment on. I really need now only a place to carry them out.

Selected articles about Békésy

All articles are in PDF format.

Acknowledgements

This exhibit was greatly helped by:

  • Researchers at the Pacific Biomedical Research Center -- Professors Dan Hartline (Director), Pat Couvillon, and von Békésy's electronics technician Hinano Akaka
  • Emeritus Professor of Psychology Robert Cole, former Director of the UH von Békésy Laboratory of Sensory Sciences
  • Librarians and support staff in Hamilton Library:
    • Administration: Paula Mochida, Interim University Librarian; Ann Yanagi, Secretary
    • Business, Humanities, and Social Sciences Department: Pauline Kurosumi, Debra Okuno, and their students Tae Jung Park and Erenst Anip
    • Science and Technology Librarian Paul Wermager
    • Preservation Department: Lynn Davis, Deborah Dunn and her students Ying Yan and Joey Brenner
    • Desktop Network Service: Martha Chantiny, Beth Tillinghast, and her student Ryan James
    • Library Systems Office: Sean Lai-Hipp
    • Maps/GIS Librarian G. Salim Mohammed and his student Brandon Sekiya
    • Charlot Collection Curator Bron Solyom
    • University Archives: Jim Cartwright
    • Graphic designer Stephanie Chang
  • The Nobel Foundation Public Relations Manager Joanna Petterson
  • Great friends -- Tom and Lynne Sugiyama

Opening reception 1/17/2008

Alan Grosenheider
Welcoming attendees

Virginia Hinshaw, UHM Chancellor
Addressing the exhibit

Dr. Emese Komjathy, Hungarian Honorary Consul
Speaking about Békésy's accomplishments

Robert Cole, former director of Pacific Biosciences Research Center
Sharing stories about Békésy's life, work, and love of art.



Robert Cole, Dr. Emese Komjathy (Hungarian Honorary Consul), Virginia Hinshaw (UHM Chancellor), Patricia Polansky (co-curator), and Theodore Kwok (co-curator)