Thursday, 21 March 2013

The Indian who never got his due

Educated people in India and believe me many of them I know have always complained of the bias against merit in India and the lopsided reservation system which does not seem to benefit the really underprivileged.
Many people have painted a rosy picture of life in the United States and said that this is one place where merit and nothing else counts. They have gone to great pains to convince me that the US is the place where one can work without fear or favour and that it brings out the best in any man.
Well, I beg to differ. While acknowledging the superiority of US over India and the rest of the world in the standard of living and in the facility they provide and the materials with which we can work,  the US too is fallible and there have been many instances of  biased US attitude towards Indians and even some of the best have been denied their rightful due.
To drive home my point, I would like to post the case of a Brahmin from South India  who made the US his home A pioneering biochemist, he is credited with the discovery of the energy source in cells and also developed an antidote for treatment of cancer.
Yet, this pioneering scientist was denied tenure at Harvard and he remained in the US without a Green card throughout his life.
If this can happen to such a person, then imagine what would happen to the rest of the mortals. You don’t believe the story. Then here goes………….
Born Yellapragada Subbarao in Bhimavaram in Andhra Pradesh on January 12, 1895, he was a Telugu Niyogi Brahmin. He had a traumatic early life as he lost his relatives when he was a student of a school in Rajahmundry. He managed to clear the matriculate examinations in his third attempt from the Hindu High School in  Madras. He passed the Intermediate Examination from the Presidency College and entered the Madras Medical College where his education was supported by friends and Kasturi Suryanarayana Murthy, whose daughter he later married. He obtained the LMS certificate degree and in 1922 he landed in United States.
After earning a diploma from the Harvard Medical School, he joined Harvard as a junior faculty member. He soon began showing his remarkable prowess. With Cyrus Fiske, he developed a method for the estimation of phosperous in body fluids and tissues. He then went on to discover the role of phospocreatine and  adenosine trihosphate (ATP) in muscular activity. This achievement won him a mention in textbooks of medical science in the US in 1930 itself. The same year, he obtained a doctorate degree.
He joined Lederle Laboratories after he was denied a regular faculty position at Harvard. At Lederle, he developed a method to synthesize folic acid. He isolated folic acid from liver and a
microbial source and then synthesized it in 1945.
Subsequently, he developed the important anti-cancer drug methotxerate - one of the very first cancer chemotherapy agents and still in widespread clinical use.
He also discovered the drug Hetrazan which was widely used by the World Health Organisation in its fight against filariasis.
It was under the guidance  of Subba Rao that Benjamin Duggar discovered Aureomycin, the world's first tetracycline antibiotic. This was in 1945.
The discovery of this antibiotic was the result of the largest distributed scientific experiment ever performed till date. Under this programme, American soldiers at the end of the second world war were asked to collect soil samples from wherever they were, and bring them back for screening at Lederle Laboratories for possible anti-bacterial agents produced by natural soil fungi.
Subbarao headed the project of which Duggar was an important member.
Tetracyclines have saved millions of lives over the last 50 years and the credit goes to Subbarao and Duggar.
Although Subbarao led much of the, medical research in America during the world war, he remained a simple and unassuming man. He never promoted himself and he rarely gave press interviews.
A patent attorney in the US was astonished to note that Subbarao had not taken any of the steps that scientists everywhere consider routine for linking their name to their work. He also discovered polymyxin which is still used in cattle-feed.
His one time colleague, George Hitchens, who shared the 1988 Nobel Prize in medicine with Gertude Elion once said, “Some of the nucleotides isolated by Subbarao had to be rediscovered years later by other workers because Fiske, apparently out of jealousy, did not let Subbarao's contributions see the light of the day”.
American Cyanamid Company,  a leading American conglomerate,  which became one of the nation’s leading 100 manufacturing companies during the 1970s and beyond, named a fungus after Subbarao and called it  Subbaromyces Splendens,
One of the finest tributes to Subbarao was paid by in April 1950 by  American author Doron K. Antrim who said,  “Because he lived you may be alive and are well today. Because he lived you may live longer.”
He died on August 9, 1948 of a massive heart attack and even today few Indians and fewer Americans are aware of him. India has honoured him with a postage stamp and his admirers still remember  him as the “Man of miracle drugs”.
Scientists have won Nobel Prize for a single invention or discovery, a few of them for two discoveries but Subbarao remains among the few who have been denied the Nobel though he has many discoveries to his credit.   

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