In 1965 or 1966, I met Sir Alexander Haddow, a very distinguished and handsome scientist then the director of the Chester Beatty Cancer Research Institute in London. We started talking about Methotrexate which was being used widely not for curing but alleviating the suffering from Burkitt's lymphoma, one kind of cancer, and he said, 'Do you know that Methotrexate was discovered by an Indian?' You can imagine the sense of pride I felt.

SubbaRow got Aminopterin, which reverses the action of folic acid, synthesised when reports of a clinical collaborator indicated that chemicals resembling the vitamin arrest the growth of cancer cells. He thus initiated the chemotherapeutic approach to the treatment of cancer. Methotrexate, a derivative of Aminopterin, has since then been the drug of choice in childhood leukaemia and many adult cancers.

As Director of Research at Lederle, SubbaRow established a project for protecting American soldiers fighting in the Pacific from malaria and Filariasis. He found in Hetrazan the cure for Filariasis. It is today the most widely used drug against Filariasis which leads to the deformity-causing elephantiasis.

Let me go backwards in time. When I raise my hand I am consuming energy. We derive energy from the food we take. A good part of what we eat is converted by the body into glucose. A mechanism in the body metabolises glucose and in the process generates energy the muscles use for running, raising hands and doing the work of everyday life. That alone wouldn't be enough. There must be ways of storing the energy obtained from food because we are not eating food all the time. There was a hunt therefore in the 1920s for the chemical substances in the body acting as energy stores on which the body draws whenever it needs energy.

It was SubbaRow who co-discovered while working with Cyrus Fiske at Harvard the two chemicals - Phosphocreatine and adenosine triphosphate - that store energy in our body. In fact all living organisms store Phosphocreatine as their source of energy. When the body needs energy, ATP is converted into ADP (adenosine diphosphate) and ATP is replenished by Phosphocreatine while the body rests.

Not only did he show how important phosphorus is for our body, SubbaRow also devised the perfect way of estimating phosphorus in living organism. There may not be any biologist of any kind anywhere in the world who has not some time or the other used the Fiske-SubbaRow Method of estimating phosphorus. In all fairness it should have been called the SubbaRow-Fiske method but SubbaRow put the name of his supervisor first on the paper describing it,

Trained first as a mathematician and physicist and then as a chemist with no formal training in biology, I got introduced to experimental biology through estimating phosphorus. And I used the Fiske-SubbaRow Method. That was in 1953. Hailing from Andhra as I did, I remember asking how he spelt his name Row and not Rao. As I learnt later he would have been the last man ever to cause a row!

If you look at citations of scientific papers - which is the way others use your scientific work and quote it in their publications - SubbaRow turns out to be one of the most highly cited scientists in the entire history of science.

Thus far about his work. What about the man himself? I have a wish list of ten persons from the beginning of human history I would have liked to meet personally. In it figures SubbaRow along with Chanakya, Asoka, Leonardo da Vinci. I regret I never knew him. My first visit to USA was five years after he died but I have met and talked about SubbaRow with people who knew him intimately.

What came through in these talks, apart from his scientific brilliance, was his tremendous modesty and self-effacement. This was very difficult to understand as he was driven by a desire to be famous. But he was at the same time generous in giving credit for what he had done to someone who stood to gain a great deal thereby. It is difficult to reconcile these two qualities but all of us have a little bit of such contradictions in us.

Fiske would not have got the position he did at Harvard but for SubbaRow sharing with him the credit for the method of estimating phosphorus in biological fluids. My friend, S P K Gupta, in his biography of SubbaRow has documented many such acts of his to get a friend or a colleague a promotion or a job or an advantage.

SubbaRow's cultural pluralism is another thing that comes through in his documented life and work and in personal dialogues with people who knew him. He had this multiplicity of backgrounds which intermeshed in his personality: He was extremely Indian and identified himself as an Indian. He was conversant with our ancient scriptures and his early work was in Ayurveda. But he also provided financial support to the Church, especially to churches which seemed to have a universal element in their beliefs and to their education programmes. It is strange that while he was an Indian in reality always, an Indian visiting him in USA told his family in India that SubbaRow had become totally americanised. Appearances can be deceptive!

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