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Friday, 20.09.2019

Memories of Peter Gaszner
Elemer Szabadi


On 25 July this year I received an e-mail from Gabor Gaszner, Peter Gaszner’s son, who is also a psychiatrist. This brief e-mail was a circular to tell people that Peter had died earlier that day after a long illness.  This was a major shock to me: I was not aware of Peter’s illness. My last contact with him was last Christmas when we exchanged seasonal greetings; he did not mention that he was unwell.  I have been thinking of Peter a lot since Gabor’s e-mail: I find it difficult to realize that he is no more.  Instead of a eulogy or obituary listing his achievements, of which there will be several, I would like to share a few personal memories. These memories are dear to me, and may, to a small extent, indicate what sort of person Peter was.

Peter and I were of the same age, both of us grew up and studied medicine in Hungary.  Although Hungary is a small country, our paths did not cross there. We first met in 1978 when Peter joined our Human Psychopharmacology Laboratory in Manchester on a one-year research fellowship. We got on very well from the first moment, obviously facilitated by our common native language and background, and of course, our current interest in psychopharmacology.  Peter rolled his sleeves up straight away, joined some on-going studies, and we started planning our first experiment together. Without any delay, he became a full-fledged member of our research team, joining in not just the experiments but also the social activities, including sharing jokes with the researchers, technicians and secretaries.

I was keen to introduce Peter to scientific events in England during his year with us, and we went to a number of national and international meetings together, such as the meetings of the British Pharmacological Society and the International Pupil Colloquium held in London. As funds were in short supply, we usually stayed in modest accommodation, mainly in student halls, on such occasions. I remember an exceptionally dreary student hall in London where we had a free evening with some time to kill on our hands. What should we do tonight? I suggested that we might go to a pub and have a drink. Peter said, let’s go the opera. Which opera? Covent Garden, of course! Covent Garden?  You must be joking: we won’t get a ticket; all tickets must have been sold a long time ago. Finally, we agreed to go to Covent Garden, and if there were no tickets, we would go to the pub. When we arrived at the opera house, a chap came up to us, with two tickets in his hand: would you be interested in buying these tickets?  My wife could not come, and I will not go without her. So, we had our tickets, and saw a most memorable performance of Verdi’s Don Carlos (with Boris Christoff in the role of King Philip!). This little incident highlights the secret behind Peter’s success: optimism, going for it, and perseverance.

Peter was an enthusiastic music lover, and he was serious about his commitment to music. Wherever he was, one of the first steps was to look for the concert hall or the opera house.  During his stay in Manchester he was a regular concert goer, attending one or two concerts every week. Occasionally we went together, but I was unable to keep up with him. A few years later we met at a conference in Geneva.  I was not surprised when Peter suggested that we should go to the opera. As it could be expected, there were no tickets left for the evening performance. I knew that the next step was to turn up for the performance and see whether we might pick some tickets up there. And, true to form, we manged to get two returned tickets and to see a marvellous performance of Handel’s Rinaldo.  Peter related to me how he had managed once to get a ticket to the Met Opera in New York. Although the performance had was sold out Peter did get a ticket by convincing the clerk at the ticket office that he was a unique kind of opera lover: he had come to New York from Hungary on the sole purpose to see that particular opera.

While Peter was with us in Manchester we organized an international symposium on the Pharmacology of Adrenoceptors. The impetus for this came out of our single neurone pharmacology laboratory where we became intrigued by the responses of cortical neurones to noradrenaline and its cogeners. The pharmacology of these responses was very similar to that described for noradrenergic responses in smooth muscle. Peter became fully involved with the organization, helping us with the preparation and day-to-day running of the sessions. He took it on himself to operate the slide projector, and had to cope with the frustration caused by the occasional jamming of the projector.  Peter, many years later, became a successful conference organizer himself in Hungary, and I often wondered whether the buzz obtained from getting a successful meeting off the ground in Manchester might have started him off on the road.

When Peter’s fellowship year finished in Manchester, we remained in contact.  Still there were   data to be analysed and papers to be written. A few years later when we organized a follow-up conference on adrenoceptor pharmacology, Peter and his wife came to Manchester staying with us. Peter was an invited guest of the conference, however, he insisted to contribute to the day-to-day running, and soon took up his old position behind the slide projector.

After his return to Hungary, Peter became the Consultant responsible for running a busy general psychiatric ward at the National Institute of Psychiatry and Neurology in Budapest. Although this was more than a full-time job, Peter found time and energy to take a leading role in organizing the Hungarian Psychopharmacology Society and edit its new journal. This led to the organization of a series of annual psychopharmacology meetings in Tihany on Lake Balaton in Hungary. This was a mammoth task, involving raising funds, planning the programme, inviting speakers, and running the meetings themselves. Most of the sessions were in Hungarian to encourage active involvement by young Hungarian psychiatrists. In addition, there was also an international session in English, including invited speakers from many other countries. Peter very kindly invited me to the Tihany conferences.  I was in a privileged position:  as a “foreign” guest I benefited from an excellent social programme offered to visitors, and as a “native” I had the opportunity to get to know my Hungarian colleagues.

Peter was a devoted family man: he put a great effort into facilitating the development and education of his children. Three of his children have become doctors, and one of them is a psychiatrist. He used his widespread networks of colleagues and friends to arrange placements for postgraduate study for his son in some of the best institutions.  He often took some of his children with him to international conferences providing them with an early experience of the working of the scientific community. 

Peter was a generous man, always helpful, ready to do service to others. He was a wonderful host: he always looked after his guests with the greatest care and attention, including driving them to the airport, entertaining them in restaurants, even providing the musically minded with concert tickets.  He was very helpful to my elderly mother who lived on her own in Budapest, when she needed spa treatment for a mobility problem. Peter arranged my mother’s admission to a spa hospital in the country, and even asked his ex-wife, who lived near the hospital, to visit my mother. On one of my early visits to Hungary I was staying in the country where my sister had a holiday home. Peter insisted that I should borrow his car during my holiday, although I could have easily rented a car.

A few years ago, the Tihany conferences came to an end, due to lack of continued funding. This was the end of my annual visits to Hungary, although I still go to Budapest less frequently. On these visits, I always met Peter, usually for a meal and a chat in a restaurant. Our last meeting was in October 2014.  It will be difficult for me to go next time without the chance of having our regular meeting.   My memories are what is left for me of Peter: I cling to them dearly.


January 18, 2018