The Nature of the Strong Heart

Faculty of Medicine
Faculty of Medicine
After escaping war-torn Hungary with only a rucksack, Dr. Margaret “Mama” Beznak left a legacy of excellence as a cardiac physiologist and long-time chair of uOttawa’s Department of Physiology.

“It is the nature of the strong heart, that like the palm tree it strives ever upwards when it is most burdened.”—Philip Sidney, 1591


By Jessica Sinclair
Research Writer

There are a number of diseases in which the heart gets larger. Dr. Margaret Beznak, chair of uOttawa’s Department of Physiology from 1959 to 1979, focused her research on finding out why.

“Eventually we hope to get to the point in medicine where we don’t treat, but we merely prevent,” she told The Ottawa Journal in 1968. “There are no short cuts in this type of research. You must really understand all aspects of the disease.”

Early Life

Born Margaret Hortobagyi in Hungary in 1914, she spent all her life in the world of medicine. Both of her parents and her brother were doctors, and it was with genuine passion for the subject that she enrolled in medical school herself at the University of Budapest. Despite the cut-off grades for women having been set higher, almost 10% of the class were girls.

In her fourth year of medicine at the University, she married the professor of physiology, Dr. Aladar Beznak, and went on to graduate summa cum laude in 1939. The couple went to work on researching the basic mechanisms of heart function. They continued their work even when the 50-day Russian siege of Budapest began, rendering currency worthless. Dr. Margaret Beznak described barter as the only means of fending off starvation for many.

Out of Europe

As a known anti-Nazi, Aladar had some leeway during the Russian occupation that followed, but tensions ran high and in 1948 he was forced to resign as head of the physiology department.  The two doctors walked for 20 miles into Austria, taking only what they could carry on their backs. At two o’clock in the morning they were safely 10 miles past the border.

Dr. Margaret Beznak was already well respected in the scientific community and after a brief stay in Stockholm, she earned a grant from the Medical Research Council of Great Britain to conduct a research stint at the University of Birmingham. In 1953, Aladar was invited to lead the University of Ottawa’s Department of Physiology, and the couple moved to North America.

“Our home was on the banks of the Danube and had a wonderful view of the Budapest Parliament Buildings. This was the reason why, when we came to Ottawa, my husband bought our house in Hull where we had a view much like it of the Parliament Buildings here,” she told the Journal.

Rise to Leadership

The next year, while her husband was at a clinical conference in Boston, Dr. Beznak gave his uOttawa lectures for him. She was asked to stay on as a senior lecturer, becoming assistant professor three years later and succeeding her husband as  head of the Department of Physiology upon his sudden death in 1959. An enormously popular teacher, Dr. Beznak was known to generations of students as “Mama” Beznak. Much of her most intensive research was conducted over the summer holidays, staying in the lab late in the evenings—with only her rats for company—so that she could focus on her teaching during term time. Still, in 1964 she received the Excellence in Research Award from the University.

During her career at the university she took on several roles that paved the way for women in leadership in Canadian medicine. In 1968, Dr. Beznak was the first woman in Canada elected to serve on a university’s Board of Governors. She represented the medical school in the faculty senate and held a post of Vice Dean and Acting Dean, all firsts for a woman. When she retired in 1979 the university granted her Professor Emeritus status.

“I consider it a very great honor to be entrusted with a part of my new country’s future in the instruction of its students,” she said.

She died in 1999 at the age of 84.