Hatvani István was born on the 21st of November, 1718, in Rimavská Sobota. It was his father, Hatvani Gergely and his mother, Mester Judit, who inspired his love for books and interest for science. His parents wanted him to become a pastor but he eventually chose teaching and medicine. Hatvani enrolled in Debreceni Kollégium at the age of 20 and then he continued his studies in Basel, where he became ordained as a minister. He received his diploma in medicine in 1748 in Marburg, where he also studied physics and chemistry. He was invited to teach at Leiden University a year later but he turned down the offer. He was taught by excellent teachers and professors abroad and he became an exceptionally educated scientist. He eventually returned to Debrecen where he taught geometry and philosophy. He was the first person to teach chemistry and he brought equipment for physics experiments from abroad. Even at a young age he realized the teaching methods of his era were outdated. He felt like he could best help his country grow in the field of science by staying home.
This wasn’t the only way the people of the 18th century saw Hatvani István though. Some thought of him, as Jókai also referred to him, as the ’Hungarian Doctor Faustus’.
Where did that name come from?
Hatvani’s unquenchable thirst for knowledge involved different areas of science, which led to the rumor that he’d sold his soul to the devil. The people of Debrecen believed that he could resurrect the dead, tap wine from a table leg and tell the future. These rumors could be explained by his magical skills and comprehension of astronomy; but he also had extensive knowledge of physics, arithmetic, geometry, theology, medical physiology and hydrostatics, all of which he also taught. Within the fields of experimental physics he taught chemistry, botany, zoology, medical physiology, geography, mechanics and parts of astronomy.
Other theories say the diabolical legends surrounding Hatvani’s name have no rational basis. According to some the myths originate from Kazinczy Samuel, a humorous chief physician from Hajdúkerület. Some also say that these stories are mostly the results of the wit and creativity of Hatvani’s students. The reason behind this could be that Hatvani was the first in Hungary to illustrate his physics classes with experiments and his classes had such a great effect on his imaginative students that they started seeing him as a mystical being. The stories were so popular that Jókai Mór put some of them on paper – The Hungarian Faustus, 1871- and Mikszáth Kálmán also wrote about him. Arany János was also so inspired by one of the legends about Hatvani that he incorporated it into one of his poems.
Hatvani, who also earned recognition in Western Europe because of his studies, gained great popularity among his students thanks to his interesting and entertaining lectures, as well as his vast knowledge. He was the first Hungarian scientist-teacher who illustrated his chemistry and physics classes with experiments. He was named a professor in 1749.
Hatvani took over the supervision of health care in Debreceni Kollégium at the beginning of his career and with that he became the first Hungarian school doctor. Soon he was recognized as a respected and excellent doctor and was held in high respect not only by the people of Debrecen but all over the country and even outside of it. Noble families, socialites and military officers requested his help and advice. Some of his most successful methods are still known to this day.
Hatvani, a trailblazer in Hungary with his many different pursuits, died on the 16th of November, 1786 in Debrecen, of biliary problems.