The Brightest Minds in Anatolia: Snapshots of Modern Turkish Scientists

Muzafer Sherif, born on July 29, 1906 in Odemis, Izmir, Turkey, is considered the founder of modern social psychology and is most famous for his social judgment theory and realistic conflict theory. These impressive accomplishments in the field of psychology, however, may be less impressive than Dr. Sherif’s broad love of learning and adamant political convictions. He began his academic career at the American International College in Izmir in 1927, then completed a master’s program at the University of Istanbul. Eager to continue his education, Sherif enrolled in a second master’s program at Harvard University, moved to Berlin to listen to lectures under Kohler, then returned to America to receive a PhD from Columbia University.

After this impressive array of academic pursuits, Sherif joined the faculty at Ankara University, where he translated some key works of psychology into Turkish. This work, however, was interrupted when Sherif was arrested and jailed for speaking out against the Nazi Movement. His American graduate students were so upset by his imprisonment, that they initiated a campaign which eventually convinced the U.S. Department of State to arrange for his release and return to America. Working as a fellow for the State Department and as a professor, Sherif continued his research and made his seminal contributions to the field of psychology. He received a long list of distinguished awards—including the first ever Cooley-Mead Reward for Contributions to Social Psychology from the American Sociological Society, and published over 24 books and 60 articles, most of published jointly with his wife, Carolyn.

Behram Kurşunoğlu, born March 14, 1922 was a Turkish physicist specializing in Unified Field Theory, a highly theoretical subfield founded by Albert Einstein as he attempted to unify the general theory of relativity with electromagnetism. Dr. Kurşunoğlu was born on the Black Sea in the northeastern town of Trabzon. After studying for three years at İstanbul Yüksek Öğretmen Okulu, Kurşunoğlu received a scholarship from the Turkish government to transfer to the University of Edinburgh. After finishing at Edinburgh, he earned a PhD in Physics at the University of Cambridge and eventually became the dean of Nuclear Sciences and Technology at Middle East Technical University, and a counselor to the office of Turkish General Staff.
In 1965, he founded and began directing the Center for Theoretical Studies at the University of Miami, all the while counseling major research organizations and laboratories in Europe. Other than a brief stint as a visiting lecturer at the Russian Academy of Sciences in 1968, he continued his work at the University of Miami until 1992, advancing and exploring theoretical physics and the fabric of the universe.

Mahmut Gazi Yaşargil is a Turkish medical scientist, neurosurgeon, and inventor, and is considered a cofounder (along with Raymond M.P. Donaghty) of Microneurosurgery. He was born in 1925 in Lice, a small village in eastern Turkey about 200 miles from Turkey’s border with Iran, but moved to Ankara at a young age. Dr. Yaşargil attended Ankara public schools, and was inspired to study medicine by a family friend who was a neurologist. In order to pursue the medical sciences, he attended Ankara University then the Friedrich Schiller University of Jena, Germany until classes were disrupted by the outbreak of World War II. Unwilling to put his studies on hold, young Gazi transferred to medical school at Basel, Switzerland, where he obtained his medical degree in 1950. Impressed by Professor Hugo Krayenbühl, who headed neurosurgery at the University of Zurich, Gazi joined the University of Zurich surgical team after graduation.

Here Dr. Yaşargil’s interest turned towards vascular lesions and other issues related to blood flow in the brain. As blood vessels which had to be identified and repaired were no more than 2 millimeters wide, Yaşargil was attracted to new methodology for conducting surgery under a microscope being developed in the United States. He thus joined the Microvascular Laboratory at the University of Vermont, and though he only stayed for fifteen months, it was there he made his greatest breakthroughs. The methods he developed for the repair of miniscule blood vessels in the brain—often with instruments he crafted himself— have lowered the morbidity and mortality rates in a number of neural procedures.

Erdal İnönü, born June 6, 1926, was both a prominent theoretical physicist and a Turkish politician who served as the interim Prime Minister of Turkey between May 16 and June 25, 1993. He also founded and led a major political party in Turkey between 1983 and 1993. The son of Mustafa İsmet İnönü—a three-time Prime Minister and the second President of Turkey after Ataturk—Erdal grew up in the political spotlight. However, he originally shied away from political life, and chose to study physics at Ankara University, then at California Institute of Technology where he received a PhD.

During his time in America, Dr. İnönü pioneered the study of group contractions with Eugene Wigner, who went on to be a leader in the Manhattan Project. İnönü returned to Turkey in 1964, where he conducted extensive research on neuron transport, served as the Dean of Arts and Sciences at the Middle East Technical University, and as the university’s president for a year.

Aziz Sancar was born in 1946 to a lower middle class family in the southeast town of Savur, where he grew up speaking both Arabic and Turkish. His parents were illiterate and had received no formal education, but insisted that their eight children take school seriously. Dr. Sancar listened to his parents, and studied medicine at Istanbul University before moving to the University of Texas Dallas for a PhD program in molecular biology. Choosing to remain in the United States, Sancar accepted a position at Yale University, then at the University of North Carolina where he conducted research on the mechanisms of photo-reactivation.

For this work, Dr. Sancar was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2005 as the first Turkish-American member. His recent work has focused on DNA repair, the genes which control circadian clocks, and cell cycle checkpoints. His findings on circadian clocks—internal timing mechanisms which allow our bodies to adjust to natural cycles such as days and seasons—may be used to treat a wide range of different illnesses and disorders such as jet-lag and seasonal affective disorder, and may be useful in controlling and optimizing various cancer treatments. For his work on DNA repair, Dr. Sancar received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2015, making him the second Turkish Nobel laureate after Orhan Pamuk.