The second was a heralded scientific career in the United States, where Dr. Bito played a leading role in the development of a drug credited with saving the eyesight of millions of glaucoma patients.
But there was also a third life, the one that he pursued after retiring from Columbia University in 1997 and returning to Hungary, where he fulfilled his dream, nursed in the darkness of the mines, of becoming a writer.
After dedicating his scientific career to the prevention of physical blindness, he told a publication of Bard College in New York, “I devoted much of my life … to a crusade against the much greater problem of spiritual tunnel vision.”
Dr. Bito, whose novels and essays established him in his home country and beyond as a man of letters as well as a man of science, died Nov. 14 at his home in Budapest. He was 87. The cause was bronchopneumonia caused by chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, his wife, Olivia Carino, confirmed in an email.
Laszlo Bito — he took the middle name Zoltan upon his immigration to the United States — was born in Budapest on Sept. 7, 1934. His father worked for the city’s public transport company, and his mother, who had trained to be an opera singer, gave piano lessons.
Dr. Bito described enjoying a happy childhood until it was interrupted by World War II and then the Soviet occupation.
In 1951, the year he turned 17, his family, along with many other artists and intellectuals perceived as a threat to the Communist regime, was removed to a village in the country. He labored as a farmworker and a bricklayer before being detailed to the coal mines, where he suffered lung damage that he said later brought about his pulmonary ailments.
Dr. Bito likened forced labor to an experience out of Dante’s “Inferno.” But he also recalled finding refuge in the deepest reaches of the mines, at the end of the conveyor belt, where — between stints loading carts with coal — he penned his first writings.
“First I just wrote a diary, to preserve my mental health,” he recalled. “Later I got so involved in writing short stories that I could hardly wait to get back to my notebook, which I’d hidden deep in the mine.”
In 1956, Dr. Bito led other workers in overwhelming their guards. They headed for Budapest to join the uprising that was already underway, but by the time they arrived, the Soviets had put it down.
Dr. Bito fled to the West, ultimately landing at Bard, which at the time was hosting an English-language program for hundreds of young Hungarian refugees. He stayed on at the university, receiving a scholarship and a degree in premedical studies in 1960. He then enrolled at Columbia University, where he completed a PhD in biophysics in 1963.
Dr. Bito soon joined the ophthalmology faculty at Columbia, where he conducted his most significant work in the 1970s and early 1980s on glaucoma.
Glaucoma causes fluid to build up in the eye, increasing pressure and ultimately damaging the optic nerve. Left untreated, the condition can cause permanent vision loss and blindness.
At the time, prostaglandins, a compound naturally produced by the body, were believed to increase pressure in the eye. Dr. Bito, following a train of thought that was at one point dismissed as having only a 5 percent chance of success, argued that the opposite was true.
Testing his theories on subjects including himself, Dr. Bito helped develop an eye drop — latanoprost, marketed as Xalatan — that became widely prescribed around the world and dramatically improved outcomes for people with glaucoma. In 2000, he shared the Proctor Medal, a prestigious honor awarded by the Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology.
After his retirement, he returned to Hungary, where he wrote numerous novels, essay collections and other works. Dr. Bito, who was raised Catholic, was particularly interested in Old Testament stories — such as those of Adam and Eve, and Cain and Abel — and how they might be reinterpreted.
“Laszlo very much questions the meaning of these parables,” John Solomon, his editor and a friend since their days at Bard, said in an interview, “and he asks for a replacement of them with more humane understanding.”
Dr. Bito’s book “The Gospel of Anonymous: Absolving All Men of the Most Hideous Crime of Deicide,” translated into English in 2011, served as a literary counter to the antisemitic canard that Jews are to be blamed for the death of Jesus.
Dr. Bito’s first marriage, to Perry Mote, ended in divorce.
Survivors include his wife of 34 years, of Budapest and Seattle; two sons from his first marriage, John Bito of Seattle and Lawrence “Buck” Bito of San Francisco; three grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter.
Dr. Bito reaped significant financial rewards from his pharmaceutical discoveries and shared them with Columbia, where he endowed a professorship in East Central European Studies at the Harriman Institute, and at Bard, where he gave millions of dollars to the college and its music conservatory.
In 2007, half a century after he had arrived at Bard, a refugee only recently emerged from the coal mines, Dr. Bito helped organize a reunion of the Hungarians who had convened there in 1956-57 to learn English and embark on their new lives in America. In the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Dr. Bito worried that Americans would increasingly fear rather than welcome immigrants such as the young man he had once been.
“One reason we organized this is to show that not all immigrants are a burden to the United States,” he told the New York Times, “and not all immigrants are to be feared.”