Personalities of Czech Ancestry

Daniel Hrna

Nobel Prize Winners
1. Jaroslav Heyrovský, won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1959. While heading the chemistry department at Charles University, he developed a novel method analyzing chemical solutions. Most of his career was devoted to polarography which is the name for his method utilizing the polargraph, an instrument that he developed. The Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences was renamed in his honor to the J. Heyrovský Institute of Palarography.

2. Jaroslav Seifert was a Czech Poet. At age 84, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1984. Modern life as poetry is expressded by Seifert in his poetry. His revolutionary songs fit into his character as he was a signatory to Charter 77 as president of the Writer’s Union. Life is poetry in the words of Jaroslav Seifert.

Political Appointments
Secretary of State
In 1996, After effectively representing the United States at the United Nations, President William Clinton named Madelaine Albright, a native of the Czech Republic to be Secretary of State of the United States. Ms. Albright is the first woman secretary of state and the first person of Czech ancestry to hold this high office. Ms. Albright’s family escaped from the then Republic of Czechoslovakia before the Nazi occupation and was reared and educated in the United States. Ms. Albright has been universally accepted as a peace maker and is continuously travelling to mediate trouble spots in the world on behalf of the United States.

Military Heroes
Sergeant Michael Strank who is pictured as the third Marine from the left in the immortal picture of raising the flag over the Japanese Island of Iwo Jima during World War II on February 23, 1945 was born on November 10, 1919 in Jarabina, Czech Republic. He was reared in Conemaugh, Pennsylvania. Sergeant Strank enlisted in the Marine Corp in 1939 and went overseas on December 8, 1941. After receiving citations for valor and the purple, on February 23, 1945, he was instrumental with the Marines of the Second Battalion, 28th Regiment, Fifty Division in raising the American Flag over a vital island in the battle of the South Pacifice. The picture is the most famous picture of World War II. Sergeant Strank was killed on March 1, 1945 in the northern part of Iwo Jima which was the fiercist battle in the South Pacific to regain an island that took 36 days of bitter fighting to capture.

Czech astronauts: There have been three astronauts of Czech ancestry. Most notable is Eugene Cernan, who began his career in 1964 on the Gemini 9 mission by orbiting the earth for 3 days as America’s youngest astronaut. In 1972, he was chosen for the Apollo 17 Mission. He spent three days on the moon exploring and collecting samples of the moon’s surface. Apollo 17 was the last manned space flight to the moon. A famous and local Texan, Astronaut John Blaha from Victoria, Texas is currently stationed on the Mir Space Station making history for the United States. The third Czech astronaut is Vladimir Remek, a Czech cosmonaut who was the only non-American, non-Russian to fly in space.

Space Pioneers
Frank Malina, a graduate of Texas A & M, became an aeronautical engineer with emphasis on propulsion. He is credited for the design of the first American rocket-propelled missile including the WAC Corporal missile and becoming an expert in rocket propulsion. He is owed a lot of credit in our space exploration program. Not satisfied with such a great contribution to America, he went on to work with UNESCO as a second career. He completed his tenure with UNESCO and left to begin to study kinetic art. Finally he merged all of his creative ideas into an art journal called, “Leonardo, the International Journal of the Contemporary Artist.”

1. The Czech contribution to medicine is ancient. From the alchemists of Mediaeval Age to today’s modern medicine, Czechs and physicians from the Czech lands are recognized. The most notable physicians and scientists that have changed our world are:

2. Joseph Skoda (1805-1881) who developed today’s diagnostic method. The technique that Dr. Skoda developed consists of the physician taking the medical history of the patient and after conducting a careful physical examination arrives at a provisional diagnosis. This replaced the old theory of guessing what might be wrong with the patient. This is the method used universally in the practice of modern day medicine.

3. Johann Mendel was born in Silesia now part of the Czech lands in 1822 and spent much of his time in Moravia. He became a monk of the Order of St. Augustine and taught mathematics and natural sciences at the University of Vienna. It was his work while an Abbot in the Augustinian Monastery garden in Brno that Mendel now called Gregor Mendel learned about the laws of heredity and genes. He first published the results of his experiments describing the signs of heredity in 1856. It was not until 16 years after his death, in 1900, that fellow scientists of his time confirmed his remarkable discovery of genetics and heredity. Today, genes are recognized as the foundation of our life and are the most studied of all human biology. He is today known as the father of genetics.

4. Jan Evangelista Purkinje was a Czech physiologist. He discovered the Purkinje cells found in the cerebral cortex and fiber network called the Purkinje bundles that control the heart. Purkinje effect relates to the eye and vision when the light intensity is reduced, the red disappears faster than the blue in vision.

5. Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), the founder of psychoanalysis was born in Príbor in Moravia where he lived and studied until the family moved to Vienna, Austria.

6. Jan Janský, a professor at Charles University in Prague was a Czech doctor of medicine. He published his study of blood groups in 1907. Fourteen years later, in 1921, the Commission of the American Medical Association accepted his discovery and advocated the use of the four blood groups that led to safe transfusions used today. Blood is now typed for each blood group before being administered.

7. Jan Jesenius who was Rector of Charles University and the renowned doctor who first performed a public autopsy on a human body in 1600 was publicly executed in 1621 in Old Town Square, Prague along with ten noblemen and seventeen burghers. This is still the largest public execution of nobility in Europe.

Movies and Theater
1. The opera singer, Tenor Leo Slezak was born in Moravia, the Czech lands and became the virtuoso of the Wagnerian Opera, Lohengrin as well as Verdi’s Othello.

2. Walter Slezak, son of Leo Slezak was an American actor born in Vienna. Walter Slezak was a Tony Award winning stage actor and movie star. He performed on Broadway in the play Fanny, for which he received a Tony. He filmed Lifeboat with Tullulah Bankhead and what was to become his most famous role was with former President Ronald Reagan in Bedtime for Bonzo.

3. Erika Slezak, daughter of Walter Slezak stars as “Vicki” on the day-time television program, “One Life to Live,” where she has starred for 25 years having won 5 Emmy Awards! She studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic art in London and spent one year at the Alley Theater in Houston in 1969.

4. Milos Forman, was a Czech born director. His One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s’s Nest won an Oscar in 1975. His Amadeus won a second Oscar in 1984. His other movies included Hair (1979) and Ragtime (1981).

1. Perhaps we owe a lot to Ray Kroc. The businessman who started with a hamburger stand converted to the most modern of franchising techniques. Ray Kroc came from a musical background. His career in music ended abruptly when the Jazz Era collapsed during the Great Depression. Undaunted, he found work selling products for the Lily-Tulip Cup Company. It was during this time he discovered an electric mixer for making milk shakes and sold them throughout the United States including the McDonald Brothers, Mac and Dick. He bought out the brother’s interest and name for $2,700,000 and by 1973 he had 2500 McDonald’s. One of his greatest projects are the McDonald House which houses parents of ill children in many cities where they seek treatment for their children.

2. Bata Shoe Company originally of Zlin, Moravia and the world wide shoe empire. The Bata company was the first company in the world to offer housing to its employees, healthcare programs, life insurance and retirement benefits. As an employee of Bata rose in the career ladder, the better home he would receive to live. Many of the benefits begun by the Bata Company are the mainstay of benefits by corporate America.

3. Korbel Champagne Cellars of California. The brothers came over from the Czech Bohemia lands to San Francisco. Upon arrival they found that there was a need and market for building of containers in which to ship wines, champagnes and brandies. They made their mark in this business by providing containers and then went on to fulfil their initial dream of producing fine wines. Corbel is on the shelves of many fine wine shops.

1. In the 1948 Olympics, Emil Zatopek, won the 10,000 meter race and placed second in the 5,000 meter race. In 1952, he won gold metals for the 5,000 meter, 10,000 meter and the marathon. He held at one time world records for nine distance runs and in the 10,000 meter run he set records on five different occasions. He is ranked as one of the greatest achievers in Olympic records in Olympic history.

2. Martina Navratilova is known for her accomplishments in tennis. Her grandmother, Agnes Semanski, was ranked in the women’s division as number two in Czechoslovakia before the World War. Coached by her father, Martina had achieved three national women’s championships while a teenager. She obtained political asylum in the United States in 1975. After that she became one of America’s greatest athletes.

3. Ivan Lendl won the Davis Cup in 1980. The household name in tennis has won all tennis competitions except Wimbleton!

4. Gymnast, Vera Cáslvská, won seven gold and four silver medals in the Olympics. In 1968, she was proclaimed as the world’s best sportswoman. Her phenomenal success in gymnastics inspired the sport in America.

Trapeze Artists
The Flying Wallendas announced the ringmaster for the Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey Circus. This was the famous trapeze family of America. The origins of the family were in Bohemia. Arriving in America in 1928, the family and its troupe became famous for its seven man walking pyramid. Karl Wallenda is known in Houston for his performance in the Houston Astrodome by crossing it on the high wire in 1973. Karl Wallenda died, as he lived, by falling off the high wire between two hotels in Puerto Rico at the age of 73 years.

“To Be Czech is to be a Musician”
1. Among the giants of Czech music is Antonin Dvorak who became the greatest Bohemian composer and master of the symphony. His first work was Hymnus (1873) and later wrote his renown Slavonic Dances (1878). He was greatly influenced by Brahms and Liszt. In England he composed the great symphony, Symphony No. 7 (1885). In the United States he was the director of New York’s National Conservatory, where he composed his most famous New World Symphony No. 9 (1893). He is known for his Rusalka (1901) as being the best known of his ten operas. His theme throughout his music is the Czech folk melody. Among his well know musical entrees are: Slavonic Rhapsodies, Piano Quintet in A, Stabat Mater, Requiem and Te Deum.

2. Bedrich Smetana was not formally trained in music. He learned music and was composing music by the age of eight years. He later made his living by teaching music to a wealthy family in Prague and learned composition from Josef Proksch. Smetana served as the Director of the Goteborg Philharmonic Society in Sweden. He is famous for two operas; one of the greatest operas is The Bartered Bride and the less known, the Brandenbergers in Bohemia. His style is to capture the feeling of nationalism inspired by the autonomy from the Austrians, the spirit of the Czech people, adapting folk songs and dances to his music.

3. Rudolf Firml, a Bohemian born in Prague in 1879, wrote 33 operas or operettas such as The Firefly, Rose Marie (his most famous) and The Vagabond King. Many of his works have been performed on the stage or made into films during his lifetime. He lived in the United States from 1906 until his death in 1972.

1. Albin Polasek who sculpted the Radegast statute on Radhostem Mountain near Roznov p. Radhostem in Moravia. The statute is located near the original chapel of Cyril and Methodius. This famous sculptor has a museum dedicated to him in Florida and was recently the subject of a documentary for Czech television. His works are on display in many locations in the United States.

Czech Historical Figures
1. Judge Augustin Haidušek was born Moravia and his family settled near Dubina, Texas in 1856. He joined the Confederate Army at age sixteen. After his military service, he studied law and became the first Czech to practice law in Texas. Contemporary Czechs compared him as the Czech Abraham Lincoln of Texas. He studied the English Bible to become fluent in English and studied law by the fireplace. After becoming licensed to practice law, he had to learn German in addition to Czech and English in order to practice law in La Grange. In 1874, he was elected as mayor of La Grange. He became the first Czech to serve in the Texas Legislature. Among the many facets of his tenure in the legislature were that he opposed the poll tax amendment to the Texas Constitution. His proposed legislation to endow a permanent school fund with county bonds and securities also failed. His political views were often controversial. He founded his newspaper, Svoboda, to foster his ideology because of opposition by editors of rival newspapers. The paper became the most successful Czech newspaper of its day. In his position as County Judge of Fayette County, he was also the ex officio Superintendent of the Public Schools. He noticed that English was being neglected in favor of the Czech language. He stressed the need for English as a practical language as well as being required by state law. He was appointed to the Texas A & M College Board of Directors in 1905. In 1916 his stance for the election of W. P. Hobby as governor and his opposition to the re-election of James E. Ferguson cost him one half of his subscribers to his newspaper.

2. The immigrant Czech cobbler, Joseph Holík organize the the Texas A & M College Cadet Corps Band in the 1890's. He served the band from its founding until his death. He is recognized for having the designed the “Corp” boot. Holík is credited of having made 30,000 pairs of the Aggie Boots. He died in 1971 at the age of 103.

3. Roman Hruska, Senator from Nebraska. (To be expanded)

4. Anton Cermák , was elected mayor of Chicago in 1931. Cermák brought stability, law and order to a crime torn and graft ridden city with great success until his assassination in 1933 by an assassin whose intended victim was Franklin Delano Roosevelt.


1. Aleš Hrdlicka was born in Bohemia but is considered an American anthropologist because his education was in medicine in New York. For four years he worked with the insane in New York State. For another four years he spent studying physical anthropology for the American Museum of National History in New York City during an expedition to the Southwestern United States and Mexico. He was curator of physical anthropology at the U. S. Museum in Washington, D.C. from 1910 until he retired in 1942. After his retirement he was an associate in anthropology at the Smithsonian Institution until his death. Hrdli ka is the dean of American anthropologists. He founded the American Journal of Physical Anthropology in 1918 and in 1929 founded and was the first president of American Association of Physical Anthropologists. He survey Alaska for its anthropological implications and was the author of the current theory of the evolution and diffusion of the American Indian. He theorized that the American Indian was of Asian origins. He postulated that the Neanderthal man was not a different species from today’s man. He made a strong argument that civilization began in Europe rather than in Asia or Asia Minor. Among his books are, Physical Anthropology (American, 1919), Anthropometry (1920) and Old Americans (1923).

2. Bedrich Hrozný was a Czech archeologist and specialized in Oriental civilizations. His first venture into archeology was a field trip to Palestine in 1904. After that he taught at the University of Vienna and in 1919 became the professor of cuneiform and oriental history at Charles University. He best known for deciphering the Hittite language and produced its grammar by that method proved that it was an early Indo-European language. His conclusions have been accepted. The language dates to about 1600 B.C. The Hittites came from an area of central Turkey now known as Anatolia and inhabited this region beginning in 1900 B.C.

3. Franz Kafka, spent his entire life in Prague is the well know author of “Metamorphosis.”

Hardly a day goes by that the word, “Robot”, does not come into our conversation. We see robots used in medicine, auto mechanics, promotions and the science fiction movies. Where did this term originate? The word comes from the Czech word, “Robota” which means worker. This word, “Robot”, was phrased by Karl Capek in his play and short novel called, “R.U.R.” which stands for “Rossum’s Universal Robots.” Capek warned of the dangers of a future technological world in his book written in 1920.

Interesting Facts
1. Jan Nepomuk Neumann was born in Bohemia in 1811. He founded the American parochial school system. In 1977, he was canonized as the first American saint by the Roman Catholic Church.

2. The Moravian Brethren’s educational philosophy resulted in the founding of the Moravian College in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. This college remains as one of the oldest colleges in America. The philosophy of Comenius (Jan Ámos Komenský) lead to the organization of formal education for women.

3. The Moravian Brethren also were very instrumental in delivering medicine to the people of the United States. They opened hospitals in their communities. During the revolutionary war even with their pacifist nature, they were instrumental for providing medical care given to the wounded and delivery of supplies to the troops in the field of battle.

4. The Moravian Brethren’s keen desire to bring education to the native Americans lead to their being trusted and used in negotiating with the various tribes. They started many mission schools in the new America.

5. In Bethlehem, Pennsylvania the Moravian community organized the first symphonic orchestra in the United States in 1744.

6. The Technical University in Prague was founded in 1803. This school was the first in the world to realize the need to educate students for the development of economy and not for military purposes as many other universities were founded. This was the beginning of vocational education in the world.

7. The Czech Musical Festival in Prague called the Prague Spring was first held in May, 1946 and has continued for over 50 years.

8. The Marionette Faculty at the Academy of Performing Arts is oldest institution of performing puppetry in the world. This prestigious group began in 1945.

9. The Film Faculty established in 1946 is known as the Film and Television Faculty at the Academy of Performing Arts is the oldest film faculty in Europe.

10. The famous composition, “Roll Out The Barrel” was composed by the Czech composer, Jaroslav Vejvoda in 1929. The original title in Czech was “Sorry For The Love I Gave You.”

11. Since 1579, the white horses of Kladruby have been used exclusively in the ceremonies at the courts of European monarchs.

12. The work, “Dollar” is derived from the coins minted in Jáchymov, Czech Republic. These coins were called “Tolar” originally by their makers.

13. The school for glass makers at Kamenický Šenov established in 1856 is the oldest in the world.

14. The oldest daily records of weather in the world are kept at the Clementium Observatory. These records have been kept up on a daily basis since 1775 and are the longest recorded weather reports in the history of the world.

15. The glassworks at Chribská, Bohemia founded in 1414 are the oldest in Europe and are still producing glassware.

16. Lithography was invented in 1796 by Alois Senefelder. This invention eventually resulted in the development of modern printing. Another Czech, Karel Václav Klíc invented the process we call photoengraving.

17. Radium was found in its natural metal state by Polish researcher, Marie Curie-Skodowska in the town of Jáchymov. The Soviets used slave labor to mine the uranium for shipment to the Soviet Union during the Russian occupation.

18. The contact lens was invented by Otto Wichterle in 1956. Contact lenses are made from hydrogel and have become a very popular way to correct vision. Wichterle was chemist who also is well know for his research with nylon.

19. The first electric arc lamp in the world was designed by a Czech electrical engineer, František K ík. He has been called the Czech Thomas Edison.

20. The lightning rod was invented by Prokop Diviš in 1754 who worked independently of Benjamin Franklin.

21. The second largest sports stadium in the world is located at Strahov. Completed in 1938, the field area covers five American football fields and holds 200,000 spectators.

This information has been prepared by Daniel Hrna, President of the Czech Heritage Society of Texas-Harris County Chapter, Inc. Copyright © 1997 by Daniel Hrna. Permission is granted for general use in the dissemination by the media of any information contained herein and for any educational purpose. The information was gathered from many sources and credit is included for the following publications and media sources, Krásná Amerika by Clinton Machann and James W. Mendl and published by Eakin Press, Austin, Texas and The Czech Americans by Stephanie Sakson-Ford and published by Chelsea House Publishers, New York, Multimedia Encyclopedia produced by Software Toolworks, Compton’s Interactive Encyclopedia produced by Compton’s NewMedia, Heart of Europe, Czech Republic, A Thousand Years of History published by the Czech Tourist Authority and historical perspectives provided by the Czech Republic and on the Internet. Daniel Hrna is solely responsible for the extrapolation of the information contained in the above synopsis. Daniel Hrna thanks the authors and their publications for their inspiration and factual information that made this presentation possible. The author can be reached at (281) 564-9800. For Membership information, please call Vice President Kathy Hanzelka at (713) 941-7615 or (281) 481-5021.