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He Transformed Science; Changed Lives

                              By Pushpa Mitra Bhargava PhD

Most of the famous scientists around the world are known only for one major discovery that has had a lasting impact on our lives: Wilhelm Roentgen for x-rays, Marie Curie for radium, C V Raman for the scattering of light by liquids, P M S Blackett for cosmic rays, Ronald Ross for the life cycle of the malarial parasite, Alexander Fleming for penicillin--all awarded the Nobel Prize for their one major discovery.

There have been a few scientists known for two discoveries: Albert Einstein for the photoelectric effect and the theory of relativity, John Bardeen for transistors and super-conductivity, Hargobind Khurana for the genetic code and synthesis of gene.

Occasionally a scientist makes a large number of discoveries albeit in only one field like Robert Woodward in organic chemistry.

Then there are persons who have made important contributions but have not received the Nobel Prize or equivalent honours like Jonas Salk who made the first polio vaccine, Michael Heidelberger the father of modern immunology, G N Ramachandran who discovered the structure of collagen the most abundant protein in our body and also laid the foundations for CT scan and NMR technologies.

Rarely, extremely rarely, a person comes on the world scene and transforms science and our lives by making a large number of major discoveries in -- and otherwise makes important contributions to -- more than one basic field and does not only not get a Nobel Prize but does not get to be known by name to most people, including scientists around the world.

I am referring to Yellapragada SubbaRow. Such an individual is perhaps born once in a thousand years or more. I do not believe there is any other person in the documented history of biology and medicine over the last 5000 years who made such a large number of basic discoveries that are applied so widely.

SubbaRow was born in India in 1895 and he died in USA in 1948 at the young age of 53.

He went to the United States in 1923 after graduating from the Madras Medical College and worked at Harvard Medical School until 1940 when he went to Lederle Laboratories to direct its medical research.

The search he directed at Lederle Laboratories for antibiotics with wider range of cures than the then available penicillin and streptomycin led to the discovery of polymyxin widely used even today in cattle-feed and Aureomycin the first of tetracycline antibiotics which all of us have had some time or the other in our lives. Tetracyclines have saved millions of lives over the last 50 years.

Aureomycin was presented to medicine in 1948 the year SubbaRow died. It was the first broad-spectrum antibiotic, that is, one effective against both gram-positive and gram-negative germs. It was thus more powerful than either Fleming's penicillin or Waksman's streptomycin.

When SubbaRow's centenary year began in 1994, tetracyclines --especially Doxycycline -- helped confine and then eradicate the plague epidemic that broke out in Gujarat and Maharashtra. It was a debt SubbaRow paid to his motherland almost half a century after death which claimed him soon after the unveiling of Aureomycin before a medical gathering at the New York Academy of Sciences.

SubbaRow and his team of organic and biological chemists isolated folic acid from liver and a microbial source and then synthesized it in 1945.

By the clinical trials he organised, SubbaRow had the satisfaction of knowing that it cures tropical sprue which took him to the death's door while a medical student in Chennai and carried away two of his brothers.

It is a pity SubbaRow is not given the credit for laying the foundations for the isolation of Vitamin B12 the anti-pernicious anaemia factor. Our daily requirement of B12 is just one microgram. That is all you require but it is extremely important you get it. If you have those indescribable pains all over, chances are that you need it. SubbaRow spent years trying to isolate it from liver and succeeded but failed to recognise it. Others opened the door he found.

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(c) Evelyn Publishers, This Website is dedicated to Dr Yellapragada SubbaRow whose contribution to human well being is unparalled