Laszlo Z. Bito, Scientist, Novelist and Philanthropist, Dies at 87
Laszlo Bito, a research scientist who fled communist oppression in Hungary, discovered a breakthrough treatment for glaucoma while at Columbia University and then returned to his homeland for a second career as a novelist, philanthropist and public intellectual, died on Nov. 14 at his home in Budapest. He was 87.
The cause was chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, said his wife, Olivia Carino, who attributed the illness to Dr. Bito’s work as a forced laborer in a coal mine in his late teens. He escaped after he and his fellow slave laborers disarmed their guards during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 and headed to Budapest to fight the occupying Soviet forces.
For much of the past two decades, Dr. Bito split his time between New York and Budapest. In New York, he was a respected scientist whose work helped spare millions from blindness. But in Budapest he was a larger-than-life figure — a supporter of a free press and democracy and a symbol of opposition to Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s authoritarian government.
“We’ve got to the point where people have less reason to fear,” Dr. Bito told a Hungarian television station in 2015, explaining why he helped protest organizers raise money for a “New Hungarian Republic” demonstration. “There’s a good American phrase, ‘Put your money where your mouth is.’ You can’t just talk. You need to help. And this is the right time for that.”
Dr. Bito grew rich from his medical research, and he used that wealth to back causes related to the arts, public health and independent news outlets, including Club Radio, a radio station driven off the airwaves by the Hungarian government. He backed young musicians, especially those of the Roma, a traditionally itinerant people, mostly in Europe, who have long been discriminated against.
“He was a man of uncommon courage,” said Leon Botstein, the orchestra conductor and president of Bard College, which Dr. Bito attended after arriving in the United States. Dr. Bito donated millions to the college and its conservatory of music along the Hudson River and financed a building named in his honor, Mr. Botstein said.
In Budapest, the spacious apartment Dr. Bito and Ms. Carino shared on the Buda side of the Danube River became a gathering place for writers, artists, musicians, thinkers and activists, young and old. There was no agenda, just free-flowing conversation, said one former attendee, Istvan Rev, a professor of history at Central European University in Budapest.
“It was a very colorful crowd there,” he said, “over 100 people, and it was like God’s zoo — all sorts of people, young and elderly, politicians and artists, talking frantically to each other, Laszlo Bito sitting in the middle.” He added, “There was an aura around him.”
Raised a Roman Catholic, Dr. Bito shunned organized religion yet used his literary skills to explore biblical themes of morality and evil, with titles like “Abraham and Isaac” and “Blessed Cain,” both novels. He wrote 20 books — including 10 novels and seven volumes of essays. In the novel “The Gospel of Anonymous,” he sought to lay to rest the myth that Jews had been responsible for the death of Jesus.
“He said he had done enough for physical blindness,” Ms. Carino said, explaining why her husband decided to leave science for writing. “Now it was time to do something for spiritual blindness.”
Bearded and intense, Dr. Bito was a formidable and sometimes combative figure who loved a good verbal sparring match. “Anything you said, he would jump on immediately with an opposing view,” said a friend of more than six decades, John Solomon, who is translating some of Dr. Bito’s books into English.
For his 80th birthday, Dr. Bito threw a big party for himself in a Budapest auditorium, inviting several hundred guests. There were dance performances, and the highlight was to be a conversation between Dr. Bito and the Hungarian philosopher and dissident Agnes Heller, a good friend. Dr. Bito made a grand entrance.
“He walked out onto the stage with crutches, clearly lacking energy — the stereotypical caricature of an old man,” said M. Andre Goodfriend, an American diplomat who was stationed in Budapest at the time. “And then he threw the crutches away to show he was there and in good health.”
Laszlo Z. Bito was born in Budapest on Sept. 7, 1934, a little more than a decade before the Soviet siege of that city. He and his family were “internally deported” to the Hungarian countryside when he was a teenager, and in 1954 he was sent to the coal-rich city of Komlo to work in the mines. He wrote short stories, hiding his notebooks deep in the mines, and left them there when he fled.
In December 1956, after receiving asylum in the United States, Dr. Bito was among a group of 300 Hungarian “freedom fighters” who were invited to Bard, a liberal arts college in Annandale-on-Hudson, 90 miles north of New York City, for a winter term of language study and orientation to American life. (In 2007, he organized a 50th reunion for them.)
He won a full scholarship to Bard, graduated in 1960 and went on to receive a doctorate in cell biology and biophysics at Columbia, where he eventually became a professor of ocular physiology. He married a fellow Bard student, Perry Mote; they divorced in 1973, and Ms. Bito died in 2016. He is survived by their two sons, John and Lawrence, who is known as Buck.
Dr. Bito was interested in a family of chemicals produced by the body, prostaglandins, and how they might affect the eye. Conventional scientific wisdom held that prostaglandins raised intraocular pressure, which could lead to blindness. Dr. Bito had a contradictory theory — that prostaglandins, given in small enough doses, could actually lower the pressure.
With financial support from the government, Dr. Bito studied prostaglandins in monkeys, cats and even himself, squirting the chemical in his own eye to gauge how much redness and irritation it caused. In the early 1980s, his work led to a patent and to every scientific researcher’s dream: a blockbuster drug, latanoprost, now marketed by Pfizer as Xalatan.
In 1988, as the Soviet Union began to crumble, Dr. Bito began making trips back to Hungary, said Ms. Carino, whom he married the previous year. After the release of Xalatan and his retirement from Columbia University in 1997, he began to spend more time in his homeland, she said, “as he also returned to his first love, of writing.”
Dr. Bito “made copious notes on the subject of death and dying,” Ms. Carino said, and wrote and spoke extensively on the topic of “eutelia,” meaning a “good end.” He was an advocate of assisted suicide, she said, and “the need for emphatic specialists to help us out of life when the time comes.”
In his later years, friends said, Dr. Bito became determined to see some of his books published in English — in particular “Abraham and Isaac,” which he intended to reissue under the title “The Curse of Obedience.” Mr. Solomon, his translator, who attended Bard with him, said Dr. Bito had phoned him every night to talk about the project up until his death.
Mr. Goodfriend, the diplomat, said he had long philosophical conversations with Dr. Bito in recent months. He said Dr. Bito had seemed to be re-evaluating his life, “asking the kind of deep questions that are very difficult to answer, but looking to see, how do we know what’s real, and what’s not real?”