HOUSTON—Gabriel N. Hortobagyi, MD, was born in Hungary to a mother who had wanted to be physician. “It was a time and place in which medicine was not a suitable profession for a woman, yet I think my mother’s subliminal messages worked on me,” he said in an interview with Oncology News International.
Dr. Hortobagyi grew up in Hungary in the iron-clad grip of Cold War communism. He said that during his childhood he was an avid reader, enthralled by science and medical books in particular.
“I can’t pinpoint when it became a conscious decision, but as far back as I remember, I always wanted to be a doctor,” he said.
He spoke to ONI from his office at The University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, where he is professor of medicine, chairman of the Department of Breast Medical Oncology, and director of the Multidisciplinary Breast Cancer Research Program.
Post-war Hungary was an inhospitable environment for people like the Hortobagyis, college-educated intellectuals, who were maligned by the communist machine that swallowed Hungary with its tanks and guns and ideology.
“We were on the wrong side of the political equation. The regime placed us in an internal concentration camp, doing forced labor for about 3 years,” Dr. Hortobagyi said.
When Stalin died in 1953, the Hortobagyis were released from the work camp, but not from the heavy shadow of communism.
“The government still considered us undesirables in our own country. We were forbidden to live in Budapest, the capital, and my parents were limited to menial employment,” he said.
The government’s active suppression of the Hortobagyis illustrated a bitter irony.
“Although the communist regime prided itself on universal education, my two sisters and I were not allowed to complete our high school education,” he said.