Madras Miscellany

Another forgotten for the Nobel

FEW NOBEL Prize winners are known for more than one or two discoveries. But one who made many discoveries that in their time "transformed science, changed lives", not only did not win a Nobel but is a name little recognised even in India - though he remained an Indian all his life. A photographic exhibition and seminar this past week commemorated Dr. Yellapragada SubbaRow, a scientist with an extraordinary record, but I doubt whether many more are likely to remember the man or the pioneering work he did.

Among the host of discoveries he made in America while working at the Harvard Medical School and, later, as Director of Research, Lederle Laboratories, Pearl River, U.S., were

*the chemicals, phosphocreatine and adenosine triphosphate that store energy in human bodies,

#the Fiske-SubbaRow Method of estimating phosphorous in living organisms, his mentor Prof. Cyrus Fiske of Harvard's name ahead of the primary researcher's in time-honoured convention;

*the isolation and synthesis of folic acid, that helps in the care of a variety of anaemia and other diseases;

*Hetrazan (Diethylcarbamazine - DEC), the cure for filariasis/ elephantiasis;

*Polymyxin, used in cattle-feed;

*Aureomycin, the first of the tetracycline antibiotics that have saved millions of lives since they were introduced in 1948; and

Aminopterin, from which he derived Methotrexate which is used to alleviate the suffering in several types of cancer, including childhood leukaemia.

Aureomycin, presented to the medical world in 1948, the year SubbaRow died young, should have earned him the Nobel Prize, according to many. That it didn't, left India with one more potential winner unrecognised. But sadder still is the fact that Yellapradaga SubbaRow's name means so little to so many in India, even in scientific circles.

The scientist with this memorable record was born in 1895 in Bhimavaran in the West Godavari District of the Old Madras Presidency. SubbaRow was the fourth child and second son of an impoverished taluk office clerk, Jagannadham and his wife Venkamma. It was the courage and determination of Venkamma that saw the boys get an education after the sickly Jagannadham retired prematurely on a meagre pension and died before the boys could complete their schooling. SubbaRow, after an undistinguished school career in Rajahmundry, joined the Hindu High School, Triplicane, and made his third and successful attempt at the Matriculation from there. His mother had to sell her gold ornaments for his future education. His mathematical and scientific bent of mind was revealed at the Presidency College - which ever cites its Nobel Prize winners but little recognises SubbaRow, quite possibly because he left after his Intermediate, refusing to major in Mathematics and choosing to enter Madras Medical College.

He had, while at Presidency, become interested in the scriptures of all religions and begun to think in terms of becoming a monk in the Ramakrishna Mission which he walked to every day. The Mission, however, persuaded him to study Medicine so that he could serve it better. Helped financially by generous friends and then by a good marriage, he struggled through Medical College, still fascinated by the Ramakrishna Mission, then with Ayurveda which cured the deadly tropical sprue he was stricken with, and later Gandhiji's non-cooperation movement. All these interests had their affect on his studies and, doing badly in surgery, he ended up with an LMS instead of an MBBS.

His medical studies, however, had shown him that doctors lacked the necessary weapons to fight many diseases. And he decided to become a researcher - convinced he'd find answers in the Madras Ayurveda College founded by the Sri Chennapuri Ayurveda Pracharini Sabha in 1912. But there was little research work possible here and it was as much his commitment to research as the compulsion to make a bit more than the pittance he was getting that made him seek a seat at the Harvard School of Tropical Medicine. The rest is a story of dedicated research, numerous successes, 111 major scientific papers and a conscious shrinking from the limelight in an era when Indians were not the most popular residents of the U.S. It is a record that earned the biochemist the description "The Wizard of Wonder Drugs".

* * *

Traumatising a mild highwayman

OF THE many sad stories connected with those knocks in the middle of the night and those accusations about the city's numerous new flyovers, the saddest must undoubtedly be that of the 67-year old N. S. Srinivasan of the Transport Advisory Forum. Ever since he served a dozen years and more as the head of the Transport and Transportation division of the Central Road Research Institute in New Delhi, he'd had a bee in his bonnet about flyovers. Responsible for offering Delhi the suggestion of taking the aerial route during the Asian Games in 1982, he has been a passionate and often acerbic defender of the flyover concept at every forum where the idea was questioned.

But such passion did not deserve the traumatising experience he had to go through for merely offering advice as an honorary consultant on a traffic scheme he passionately believed in.

While many interested in city planning - including me - have not agreed with Srinivasan on going the flyover way, most of us felt his other major contribution to the city was a commendable one. I refer to the four-laning of Anna Salai in 1992. Of course, there are the occasional problems with it, but on the whole it is the one road in the city which works as far as traffic is concerned.

This successful plan of his was implemented during the last AIADMK Government and Srinivasan wanted to extend it to Kathipara Junction in Guindy.

Sadly, the extension of a scheme that worked was not put into practice. But the scheme that many, including me, thought was unnecessary, the flyover route, was. It didn't, however, warrant the sad consequences Srinivasan has had to face.

* * *

When the postman knocked

DR. RAJA Rajan Gopaldas' prize-winning feat (Miscellany, June 28) is no record, writes Dr. R. Surya Prakash. His wife, Dr. Venkata Madhavi, was awarded 37 medals and prizes (1977-1982), one more than Dr. Rajan Gopaldas, he states. While congratulating Dr. Venkata Madhavi on her outstanding feat, I would like to point out that it would have been a bit difficult for Dr. Rajan Gopaldas to have won at least two of those prizes, the Lady Grant Duff Medical for the Best Outgoing Lady Student and the President's Silver Medal from the Countess of Dufferin Fund awarded to the Best Outgoing Woman Medical Graduate in India. Such 'women's only' medals - and there maybe one or two more in the list Dr. Surya Prakash sent me - being rather gender discriminatory, any record established should be adjudged on the basis of a level playing field, namely opportunities for ALL students to win whatever is offered. Also looking at Dr. Surya Prakash's list, I find a number of medals and awards that are no longer presented. I wonder what happened to them over the last 20 years.

Another letter the postman brought was one I expected - from Dr. Beatrix D'Souza, MP. She informs me of several other institutions that have benefited from her share of the MPs' Local Area Development Scheme funds, which allocate each MP Rs. two crore a year, raised from Rs. one crore in 1998 (Miscellany, July 2). She's funded three ambulances for old age homes in Madras, Rs. 15 lakhs for a hostel in Shenoy Nagar to be run by the Indian Council for Child Welfare, Rs. 50 lakhs for computers, an auditorium and a welfare centre in Anglo-Indian schools in the Nilgiris, Coimbatore, Trichy and Villupuram districts, Rs. 10 lakhs to the Department of English, University of Madras, and Rs. one crore for computers to schools, school buildings and community halls in Kerala. Dr. D'Souza and the other nominated Anglo-Indian MP have also contributed Rs. 65 lakhs for 30 classrooms at St. Patrick's Anglo-Indian Higher Secondary School, Adyar.

Dr. D'Souza states in her letter that MPLADS funds are meant for the creation of "durable assets" and not for repairs, even of heritage buildings or cleaning the Adyar Estuary. She hopes next to sponsor a scheme of community colleges aimed at school dropouts, offering them job-oriented education. Meanwhile, she concludes, "My quota of gas coupons and telephone connections are available to any person who applies to my office (which works even when I am in Delhi): The Anglo-Indian Assn. of Southern India, (Mr. Gerry Briggs, P.A.), 1/2, Riverside Road, Egmore."


Recommended for you