Asen Zlatrov: Work with Soy in Bulgaria (1885-1936)

A Special Report on The History of Soy Pioneers Around the World

A Chapter from the Unpublished Manuscript, History of Soybeans and Soyfoods: 1100 B.C. to the 1980s

by William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi

ęCopyright 2004 Soyinfo Center, Lafayette, California

Asen Zlatarov (sometimes spelled Assen Zlataroff in French or German) was born on 16 February 1885 in the town of Haskovo, southern Bulgaria. His father, who graduated in law in Italy, was a famous lawyer, popular social worker, and member of Parliament. While still a child, Zlatarov learned rapidly and read books in Russian and French, as well as performing chemical experiments in a self-equipped laboratory.

As a student at the chemical department of Sofia University, he was attending and lecturing on philosophy and literature. Also in 1904-05 he studied at the Geneva Chemical Institute in Switzerland under the eminent scientist Prof. Carl Graebe. There, because of his broad personal interests, he also he studied literature, political economy, zoology, biochemistry, and botany and became friends with the famous French socialist leader, philosopher, and peace activist Jane Jores (1859-1914).

Zlatarov first became acquainted with soybeans and soyfoods in 1906, when he visited the Chinese pavilion at the World Exposition in Milan, Italy (Source??). His interest in the subject deepened over the years.

In 1908 in Grenoble (France) he wrote his doctoral thesis and was awarded his degree in physics and chemistry. In 1909 he began post-graduate work in biochemistry and the chemistry of foodstuffs at the newly established Institute of Bromatology in Munich, Germany, under the guidance of Prof. T. Paule.

Bromatology is the scientific study of all aspects of foods and nutrition, based on chemistry, physiology, biology, and biochemistry, and leading to practical "chemistry in the kitchen." A. Zlatarov wrote extensively about the practical value of bromatology. This unique institute gathered together chemists, biochemists, physicians, ethnographers, and historians. They were doing research on the foodstuffs and the cooking habits/recipes world-wide, including ancient Babylon, China, India, Greece, Rome, and tribal cultures. The kitchen was also headed by a professor.

After his return to Bulgaria in Nov. 1910, Zlatarov became an assistant in organic chemistry at Sofia University and a regular contributor to medical, philosophical, literary, etc. periodicals, both in Bulgaria and abroad.

In 1911 he wrote his first book, titled "Philosophy of Biology." With this, he began to publish his research on the chemistry of Bulgaria's foodstuffs. From 1 Sept. 1920 he was a reader in physiological and organic chemistry and biochemistry at the chemical and medical departments of Sofia University. In 1224 he became a professor there, and in 1935 he became dean and head of the chair in organic chemistry at the physico-mathematical faculty.

In 1918 Zlatarov began chemical and cooking research on soya. He became active in speaking and writing about soybean cultivation and practical usage, and established communication with various organizations throughout Bulgaria. At the same time, he also actively promoted chick-peas (garbanzo beans).

In 1920 he published his first work on soya, a comprehensive 44-page booklet. During the early 1920s he published more works on all aspects of soybeans, including one in German. Between 1920 and 1936 he published at least 17 works on soybeans. It was not until 1929 that another Bulgarian, Dona Kalcheva, his student, published a full (122-page) book soybeans.

In about 1923 (Source??) a special Soya State Commission "concluded" that soybean culture in Bulgaria was not thriving well; it was very expensive, hard to digest, and lacked sufficient markets. So Zlatarov entered a long, open debate, with may talks and publications, about the importance of the soybean. He pointed out the ability of the soybean plant to enrich the soil with nitrogen. He investigated 3 soybean varieties grown in Bulgaria (yellow, green, and black ones) and compared them chemically with other leguminous plants. He analyzed the composition of soymilk and soy cheese, comparing them to similar products from the milk of humans, cows, buffaloes, sheeps, and goats. The Bulgarian Agricultural Association accepted the new crop, production began to rise rapidly, and in 1935 the first Soya Exposition was held in Bulgaria.

Prof. Zlatarov was an internationally famous scientist with broad interests, especially in the fields of biochemistry, biology, philosophy, botany, literature, and art. He made numerous original investigations in organic chemistry, biochemistry, and especially bromatology. Most of his studies were confirmed only recently (like his work on the role of micronutrients, zinc metabolism on the etiology of cancer cells). Zlatarov was a pioneer in Bulgaria in the field of bromatology, vitamin therapy, and enzyme chemistry. He not only established the common questions in the science of foodstuffs, cooking, and nutrition, he also did research on the content of the specific national Bulgarian foods, the way for their cooking/preparation and use. He did a detailed statistical analytical study of the differences in the nutrition among social classes, and pointed out the way against world hunger and chronic unwholesome malnutrition, with the help of soyfoods, chick-peas, and an entirely new scientific food industry.

Zlatarov's influence on the field of soybeans and soyfoods increased during the 1930s. He gave numerous popular and scientific lectures and authored many publications, in both Bulgaria and abroad, in German and French. The famous biochemist also discussed the therapeutic value of soyfoods, and forecast the great future of the soybean crop and of vegetarianism.

On 22 December 1936, at age 51 and in the prime of his active career, Assen Zlatarov died suddenly in Vienna after two unsuccessful operation. His funeral in Sofia was an imposing statement of his whole country's love for him and his work. During his lifetime he gave more than 900 talks and wrote about 10,000 printed pages (of which about 3,300 pages were in scientific publications). Between 1905 and 1937 he published 660 titles, including textbooks, scientific papers, popular articles, etc. Of these, 80 were strictly scientific and 30 were published in foreign languages. About 20% of his popular writings were in the field of bromatology. He wrote and spoke at length against smoking, drugs, and drinking. From 1922 he was founder and chief editor of the journal Himia i Industria (Chemistry and Industry), and a founder of several other scientific and popular serial publications. He was a collaborator on 14 foreign and 37 Bulgarian journals, and 107 newspapers. He was a member of the Socie'te de Linnie biologique (Paris). He was chairman of the League of Bulgarian Chemists from 1922 until the end of his life. He wrote several wonderful books of poetry (Flowers for Him, A Song for Her, In the Town of Love, etc.) and numerous sketches for other writers, poets, etc. On 18 Nov. 1926 the great Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore wrote a dedication to him in Sofia in a book.

Asen Zlatarov belongs to those sons of Bulgaria and of humankind who are bears or a complex spiritual world and who achieve remarkable balance between the richly diverse powers within themselves. He placed his great talents in the service of life, and had a great love of people. Thus he remains forever in the memory of generations of Bulgarians as an unforgettable universal personality, a great example of a harmonious, developed person.

After his untimely death, the work with soya in Bulgaria slowed down greatly, although soybeans were still being grown for the Nazis in Germany (Rosen L. Paskalev, July 1986).