“My mommy had some jewelry that she had gotten from my daddy at some occasion. I think that it might have been at the 10th anniversary of their wedding. She decided to sell that jewelry to a Belgian who then sent us some money for the purchase of a little car. That Belgian did this sort of business on a grand scale, and, therefore, it is no wonder that it leaked out and that it was turned into an affair. My mother was involved in it and had to go to court. The transaction was interpreted as an unauthorized foreign exchange operation or, better said, unauthorized selling of something. For my mom this whole affair was terribly agonizing because my dad hadn’t known about it at all. My mom was an amazing personality, and she was a risk taker, so she was certainly aware of the risk this entailed. She knew that the transaction was far from being perfectly legal. However, she had decided to undertake it nonetheless. So, we got a car but my mom was faced with a trial. Even though her father was a university professor, the expert opinions said that she was of bourgeois origin--these were the ugly labels they put on people. It was in 1960, at the very end of the 1950s, and my mom was terribly anxious that they would kick me and my sister out of university. We were then just about to graduate. One day before the trial, she hanged herself. That was a truly awful end of my childhood.”
“I began to study the development of the Pineal gland and it turned out to be a wonderful organ because it would cyclically produce the hormone Melatonin. It produces Melatonin at night but not during the day. You could see such beautiful sinusoids going up and down. At that time, I studied the whole metabolism. I was lucky with my discovery, but you have this very true saying, that: 'Luck is waiting for those who are ready to use it'. I used to go to the animal holding room at night with a red flashlight. One night, I forgot that red flashlight, and I thus had to leave the door to the room partly opened for about five minutes in order to let the light from the hall shine into the room. Those five minutes of illumination changed all the measured values of the Pineal gland. In this way, I discovered that even a brief illumination has an immense influence on the Pineal gland. Of course it took me a long time and a lot of research to find out the cause of this. Only after a long time did I find out about the existence of something that I hadn’t known prior to that, and that is the biological clock located in the brain of mammals. By shedding light on the animals, I turned the clock to a wholly different time.”
“But, there was a certain surprising positive aspect to it. When you’re taking part in the conferences and you listen well to what is being said there, you will identify the current trends in science. You learn what the main stream of science is researching, or you get a hint that the mainstream will turn in another direction. Sometimes you hear an incredibly interesting message, and everybody starts imitating it because they see how it might continue. When you don’t go to the conferences, you get a bit isolated. You lose the perception of what is currently ‘in’. It’s a little bit like following fashion: you know the current trend, so you know the direction to go and whom to cite. But, it may happen to you – when you’re a relatively good thinker – that you’ll follow the right, original direction yourself and that you’ll become a sort of a fashion guru yourself. In 1989, when I came to the conference, I heard them saying: ‘Look, Illnerová is here. Let’s go and take a look at her’. Because they already knew my name from literature even though they had never seen me in person before. By that time, I wasn’t the youngest anymore. So, it was actually possible to do something here without the knowledge of the larger world, and finally it turned out to be right. Maybe, if I had listened too much to what the others were saying, I wouldn’t have chosen that original way which brought results later on.”
To know what it means to rely on each other, to know what responsibility means, this is something you don’t learn at any other camp
Helena Illnerová was born in 1937 in Prague. Her father was of Jewish origin and spent most of the War in concentration camps. Luckily he managed to survive the Holocaust and eventually returned home. Helena Illnerová graduated from the Faculty of Natural Sciences and began working in the Institute of Physiology of the Academy of Sciences. In 1965, she established the troop “Sluníčka” (Little Suns) and for ten years became the troop leader. She married Michal Illner and had two children with him. In 1969, the family spent one year in New York, where Helena gained valuable experiences at Columbia University. Back in Prague at the Institute of Physiology, she made a monumental discovery on the biological clock of organisms in mammals. After the Velvet Revolution, she became the vice-president of the Academy of Sciences for eight years and then held the position of president for another four years. She has also chaired the Learned Society of the Czech Republic and the Czech Commission for the UNESCO. Helena Illnerová is still the member of several scientific councils and commissions for ethics.