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The Forgotten Indian Medical Genius

Yellapragada SubbaRow, an Indian from Andhra Pradesh in the 1940s pioneered path-breaking research in the US in biochemistry, helping to bring to humankind some lifesaving drugs widely used today.

The admirers of Yellapragada SubbaRow, a name very few Indians would be familiar with, say he deserves a place in the pantheon of top scientists in the land of his birth.

SubbaRow, who headed research at US pharma giant Lederle Laboratories in the 1940s, gave to the world some very vital drugs - folic acid, an anti-filarial drug, used widely even today, a wide-spectrum antibiotic and a drug to fight cancer. But he unfortunately died relatively young, at the age of 53 in 1948. This, say his admirers, prevented the man from Bhimavaram in Andhra Pradesh in getting the international recognition that he rightly deserved.

American author Doron Antrim had written after his death: "You've probably never herd of Dr. Yellapragada SubbaRow. Yet because he lived you may be alive and are well today. Because he lived, you may live longer."

It was while working for Lederle Laboratories, now a part of Wyeth Pharmaceuticals, that SubbaRow along with his team of enthusiastic and committed young researchers isolated three medical molecules, one of which yielded the vitamin folic acid and the anti-folic gave Methotrexate, a cancer fighter.

Folic acid is recognised today as a crucial drug. Given to a pregnant woman, the drug prevents major birth defects in the baby's brain and spine, and new studies suggest it could help prevent heart disease, stroke and is beneficial in fighting some cancers.

SubbaRow and his team were responsible for the discovery of Aureomycin, which when tweaked to become the tetracycline molecule, turned into a wide spectrum and effective antibiotic, which could be administered orally. The drug helped eradicate the plague which broke out in Gujarat and Maharashtra in 1994.

He was also the brain behind the discovery of Di-ethylcarbamzine, which has helped affected nations fight the ugly scourge of filaria.

"The tragedy of SubbaRow is that while he pioneered the research leading to the discovery of these molecules and helped synthesise the drugs, it was the people that came in later, after he died so young unfortunately, who further developed it into major molecules and took the credit," said Dr. R. Bhatnagar, chief medical officer at the Parliament Medical Centre, and an admirer of the Indian scientist.

"He was the first to think and work on these lines. He deserves a place among the top scientists of the country. The government should institute an award in his name for biochemistry research," Bhatnagar told IANS.

The Films Division of India is making a film on the researcher, who was born in 1895, and Nehru Memorial Museum is launching a website on him. It would include SubbaRow's research papers and 10,000 letters and several interviews with his fellow researchers and friends.

In fact, all the news available today on SubbaRow, on his family in India and also about his research in the US, is largely due to the efforts of veteran journalist and author S.P.K. Gupta who has untiringly ferreted out information on the scientist. He wrote a book on SubbaRow "Yellapragada SubbaRow: In quest of Panacia", and has used the proceeds from it to launch a website on the scientist.

"When SubbaRow died, the Herald, which is now the International Herald Tribune, hailed him as one of the greatest medical minds of this century (20th century) in an article. It also had an editorial on him as well as a front-page story. I have the clippings," Gupta, in his 70s, told IANS.

"I even asked the Nobel committee whether they had ever considered him for an award. I have written about it in my book. SubbaRow had discredited one of the Nobel prizes given to a British and German bioche mist. He had disproved their theory with his own findings. The irony is that others with similar discoveries got the Nobel and even many of those who took forward his own discoveries got the award. And there is no posthumous Nobel," said Gupta, who had visited the US to track down SubbaRow's colleagues and even gone to his village and met his family.

According to Gupta, a new website is being launched on SubbaRow by members of a group called SubbaRow Club. The website would contain tapes of the interviews taken of colleagues of the scientist as well as 100 photographs. The Nehru Memorial Library is providing the platform to launch the site, said Gupta.

Gupta and other admirers of SubbaRow had put forward a proposal to the government in 1995 to confer the Bharat Ratna, the country's highest civilian award, to SubbaRow posthumously. At the time, home minister S.B. Chavan had told the delegation that maybe not the Bharat Ratna, but some other award would certainly be considered.

That was then.

"The proposal must be somewhere in the files of the home ministry. It becomes difficult to keep on hammering at it," said Gupta.


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