Sixty-one years after sickle cell anaemia was first discovered in India, here's the story of P.K. Sukumaran, a lab assistant, who went on to become an expert on blood disorders.

It was early 1952, and two important visitors had just arrived in Coonoor in the Nilgiris. Hermann Lehmann and Marie Cutbush were scientists on a mission. They suspected that a disease thought to be found only among native Africans existed among the tribes of the Nilgiris.

After weeks of studying and testing the blood of the Irulas, the Badagas, and the Todas, Lehmann and Cutbush became the first to record a South Indian case of sickle cell anaemia, a genetic condition that causes our normally round red blood cells to acquire the C-shape of a sickle. This ‘sickling’ interferes with the cells’ ability to carry oxygen, resulting in anaemia and organ damage.

Sixty-one years have passed since sickle cell anaemia was discovered in India. But a genre of medical research was not the only thing that Lehmann kick-started in 1952. On the field with him, an earnest lab technician was absorbing all he could from his guru. This man, who Lehmann fondly called ‘Suku-shan’, went on to become one of India’s most respected experts in blood disorders.

This is the story of Suku-shan.

Forty days after his father died, 16-year-old P.K. Sukumaran, left school and his home in Thalassery, north Kerala for Coonoor. Underaged, poor, and unqualified (he had just passed Class X), Suku, as he was known, could not afford to be choosy about work. For three years he did odd jobs — grafting roses in a nursery, selling garments in a cloth store. In 1939 he joined Pasteur Institute as a lab attendant.

Having learnt typing and shorthand, Suku was keen to get an office job. “Col. Mulligan, the last British Director of the Pasteur Institute, convinced him to stay, even making Uncle his personal lab attendant,” says Krishnaja A.P, his cytogeneticist niece.

Sukumaran had been working there for more than 12 years when N. Veeraraghavan, the then Director, asked him to assist Lehmann and Cutbush. “At that time I was involved in a study of syphilis among Todas of Nilgiris and the contact I had with them was perhaps the reason I was selected for this job,” wrote Sukumaran in 1985, when Lehmann, who he considered his guru, died. A year later, Sukumaran moved to Bombay as a lab technician in the Indian Cancer Research Centre, now Cancer Research Institute (CRI), a part of the Tata Memorial Centre.

It was this hunger for knowledge and his willingness to learn from more qualified scientists that set Sukumaran apart from other lab staff. “He did not suffer any self-confidence issues owing to lack of formal scientific education,” confirmed Narendra G. Mehta, who met Sukumaran in CRI.

Sukumaran went on to discover sickle cell anaemia in Western India and soon helped establish that sickling was fairly common among tribal populations in India. In CRI, his career underwent a marked transformation: “no less dramatic than that of a sepoy to a General,” said Mehta, talking of Sukumaran’s rise from lab technician in 1953 to the head of CRI’s Epidemiology division in the 1970s.

Lab infrastructure in India was extremely limited in the 1950s and 1960s, but Sukumaran managed to improvise! “Even today, no one has been able to produce the type of work that he did, though he had access to only primitive techniques,” notes Dr. M.B. Agarwal, Head of the haematology department in Bombay Hospital Institute of Medical Sciences (BHIMS).

In 1957, Sukumaran was sent to an international conference to Istanbul, his first trip abroad. Subsequently he represented India in Melbourne, Bangkok, Paris, Germany, Trieste, and The Hague. He had made a place for himself on the international map of sickle cell anemia and thalassemia research. In the process, he got acquainted with stalwarts in the field like Rose Schneider, Bernadette Modell and others.

“He was extremely meticulous and easily got upset with shoddy workers,” says Mehta, who worked with Sukumaran for more than a decade. His juniors at the B.J. Wadia hospital in Mumbai, where he served as Honorary Specialist in Haemoglobinopathies after his retirement from CRI, agree. “Sir was possessive about his practical work because no one can afford to do mistakes in genetic diagnosis,” reminisces Chitra Mahadik, one of his admirers and former senior researcher at Wadia Hospital.

He may have been a task master, but the fondness for her mentor is clear in Chitra’s voice. “He loved us so much that during parties he used to give his ice cream to us.”

But work was work, as Chitra and her peers were constantly reminded. “Once, we prepared pizzas in the lab. Sir did not talk to us for the whole day. The silent treatment was a lesson in responsibility.”

Being able to relate to people across age groups — ward boy, a tribal, a famous scientist or his six-year-old grand-niece — was one of Sukumaran’s greatest strengths. That Sukumaran came to be so widely respected is remarkable, considering he had no formal scientific education. He had several opportunities, enough contacts, and more than adequate experience to do a PhD. But Sukumaran was never in it for fame. “It’s not that Uncle was not ambitious; it’s just that he believed the path mattered more than the destination,” says Krishnaja, one of Suku’s closest family members. It was she and her husband who rushed him to hospital when he collapsed near a lake in Anushakti Nagar one morning in 1990, while walking with her two young daughters. Sukumaran passed away that night.

Is it possible for someone to do a Sukumaran today? “His keen intellect, analytical mind, and pleasant personality enabled him to overcome traditional academic barriers but, perhaps if Suku were alive today, he would have adapted to the changing scientific environment,” muses Girish Vyas a former professor at the University of California, San Francisco, an early research collaborator and close friend.

However, Dr. Lucio Luzzatto, Scientific Director of a cancer institute in Florence, Italy, says, “In terms of having a successful scientific career without a University degree, I think 50 years ago, just like now, only exceptional people like Suku can do it.”