Miracle Man of Miracle Drugs
Dr. Yellapragada Subbarow

Celebration - Hundred Years of SubbaRow

“The panic,” reported INDIA Today correctly, “evaporated almost as fast as it had struck.”

The 1994 panic struck India as some 5000 suspected cases of plague were reported mainly from Maharashtra, Gujarat and Delhi but from almost every state from Punjab in the North to Andhra Pradesh in the South, from West Bengal in the East to Rajasthan in the West. But in sharp contrast to epidemics of earlier times, the killer disease was contained and wiped out in just three weeks with 56 killed of the 263 confirmed as its victims.

If the plague bacillus had not won this time round, although it did exact a terrible price in human suffering and economic disruption, it was not the public health administration that had triumphed. “The real hero”, as the news magazine declared, was “tetracycline”!

It was India’s good fortune that the antibiotic which came out of Yellapragada SubbaRow’s laboratory four decades earlier was in sufficient supply although many were pronouncing it redundant because many disease organisms previously susceptible were developing resistance. Yersina pestis had not acquired immunity to tetracyclines which did their work with half a million capsules distributed in Surat alone.

SubbaRow in his birth centenary year thus did pay his debt once again to Mother India almost fifty years after death.

The news that tetracycline was SubbaRow’s gift to humankind thrilled India. The government issued a postage stamp commemorating his Centenary. Media were full of the stories about the Unsung Hero of Science. And the Centenary Celebrations acquired a new significance.

The SubbaRow Centenary Celebrations were planned and launched long before the plague and the media hype about tetracyclines, thanks to the inspiration provided by a popular science journal profile of ‘one of the greatest medical minds of the Century’ to Dr Ram Bahadur Singh, an innovative cardiologist of Moradabad. Dr R B Singh first held on October 6, 1993 at his remote hometown in Uttar Pradesh a SubbaRow Memorial Symposium as part of a satellite meeting of the 4th World Congress on Clinical Nutrition and gave away SubbaRow Memorial Awards to investigators who presented papers adjudged to be the best three. He then canvassed his medical colleagues in Delhi, particularly Dr S S Rastogi and Dr A K Agarwal, for a pre-Centenary symposium in the national capital for young scientists to present papers in the fields where SubbaRow had made his contributions. Kotla Vijaya Bhaskara Reddy, Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh, was impressed, sanctioned a munificent government grant and flew down to officiate and inaugurate the New Delhi ceremonies. Part of the Symposium’s savings were used by the A.P. government to install a bust of the great son of Andhra at Hyderabad’s Nizam Institute of Medical Sciences to mark the state-wide centenary celebrations it organised in medical colleges.

A National Committee for Dr. Yellapragada SubbaRow Centenary Celebrations meanwhile came into being with Giani Zail Singh, seventh President of India, as chief patron because of the initiative of G V G Krishnamurty and Dr S Sriramachari. Representatives of INSA the Indian National Science Academy, Indian Council of Medical Research, Medical Council of India, Departments of Science and Technology and of Biotechnology, Delhi University, Directorate General of Health Services, Institute of Pathology and All India Institute of Medical Sciences were associated with the National Committee. The Committee mounted a scientific seminar at the All-India Institute of Medical Sciences on the morning of January 10, 1995, held a public function of homage at the Mavalankar Auditorium on the evening of January 12 and hosted the release of the SubbaRow commemoration stamp by the Vice-President of India, K R Narayanan, on December 19. It used part of the funds it saved to endow a Memorial Lecture to be awarded, with an honorarium of Rs.25, 000, once in three years by INSA to a pioneer in biomedical sciences. The first lecture was awarded to Prof N R Moudgal, Professor in the Centre of Reproductive Biology at Bangalore’s Indian Institute of Science who presented his research on the Male Contraception at INSA on 16 March 1997. The National Committee provided the Indian Academy of Sciences in Bangalore a set of Dr SubbaRow’s scientific papers for the publication it undertook of the Collected Works which, alas!, are yet to see the light of the day.

A photo exhibition on the life and work of SubbaRow was created by N K P Muthu Koya the distinguished artist of DAVP and was mounted at the AIIMS and Mavalankar Hall celebration of the Centenary. It took a tour the Nation in the seven years following.

It was first taken by Dr K Kannan, the biotechnologist, to Visakhapatnam for exposition at the 47th Indian Pharmaceutical Congress in December 1995 as its agenda included a slot on the 29th for Homage to Yellapragada SubbaRow with a lecture on “Eternal Challenges – Diseases and Therapies – Dedication of a Lifetime’.

With the exhibition as anchor, Professor Bangaru Ramesh Babu at Hyderabad’s American Studies Research Centre organised, July 10 to 13, 1996, lectures by distinguished scientists, slide shows, screening of popular science films and an essay contest for High School students. A symposium on ‘Mechanism-Based Drug Design’ was held in conjunction at Indian Institute of Chemical Technology, with invited lectures from top scientists in house as well as from the Indian Institute of Science and the Ranbaxy Research Laboratories.

Mumbai, with a citizens committee of which V V Govardhan Rao was the key member, hosted the photo exhibition at Sachivalaya Gymkhana from January 12 to 14, 1997. Vithal Nadkarni’s front-page focus in Times of India on the lives saved from the plague drew to the exhibition a steady stream of people who had benefited from, or known beneficiaries of, SubbaRow’s vitamins, antibiotics, anticancer drugs and antifilarial.

Tulsidas Dasappa, Gandhian social worker, invited the photo exhibition next to Bangalore where V Srinivasa Raju of Navachetna Trust arranged around it a series of lectures and slide shows at the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan and a number of medical institutions in the city from June 9 to 14, 1997.

The photo exhibition then moved to Calcutta where the Andhra Association, thanks to past president Farida Hussain, mounted the show on June 21 and 22 with top medical scientists of the city as guest speakers at the inaugural function.

The last call of the Centenary exhibition created by Muthu Koya was Chennai, the City which had helped SubbaRow find his paramartha or prime motive in life and trained him for his mission. A campaign by Mangalam Swaminathan got the University of Madras, which had somehow lost track of its most illustrious son, to celebrate the Centenary on July 9, 2001, almost seven years behind the rest of the Nation. The enthusiasm of the University administration, faculty and students made up for all the delay, and the inaugural was highlighted by the presentation of Suman Kapur, the biochemist, on data which promises a diagnostic tool based on the Phosphorus Method for prostatic cancer. The day after its inauguration on the University’s Guindy Campus, the exhibition moved to the nearby Periyar Science and Technology Centre where for four days, from the 10th to the 13th, it attracted thousands of school children from all over Tamilnadu visiting Chennai on organised excursions to the adjoining planetarium.

While Koya’s exhibition panels remained in storage at the University of Madras for two years before the exposition, Ravi Narain created a new set for display at the annual conference in New Delhi of the Association of Physicians of India (API) in the last week of January 2001. Physicians from all over India got sensitised to SubbaRow’s key role in getting the medical profession effective weapons to fight such a wide range of ailments against which they had been, previous to him, so helpless.

A year later, on January 12, 2002, the 107th birth anniversary, Dr Kannan, now Dean of Biotechnology at the new Indraprastha University in Delhi, decided to bring home the Centenary exhibition whose national tour he had initiated. Since Koya’s panels had aged and been dismantled after the Chennai exposition, it was Ravi’s computer-aided panels that went on display at Indraprastha to complement the day-long symposium. The topic was appropriately biotechnology of which SubbaRow was a forerunner with phosphorus nucleotides which had to be re-discovered by others because he could not publish them from Harvard. Indraprastha’s First Yellapragada SubbaRow Memorial Lecture was by Asis Datta, Vice-Chancellor of Jawaharlal Nehru University, on ‘Nutritional Genomics: Commitment to Society’. Young students of Indraprastha University followed him at a seminar on “Excitements in Biotechnology” with papers testifying to their training on the very frontiers of the newest science.

SubbaRow was no more an Unknown or Unsung Hero of Science, not in his Motherland at any rate. The long-drawn-out Centenary programme, the media and public response as well as the plethora of newspaper and magazine profiles in English and all the major languages of India barring Malayalam, and analytical pieces in medical and science journals ensured this. Also an abridgement of IN QUEST OF PANACEA, the biography of SubbaRow, was published by the Andhra University in a Telugu translation by R V Rao, and by Kannada Pusthaka Pradhikara in a Kannada translation by Dr H D Chandrappa Gowda. Besides, the organising committee of the original 1994 Memorial Symposium has taken up the publication of a Hindi translation by B K Misra, and the present album in pictures and words has been taken up by Vigyan Prasar.

There is nevertheless a palpable sense of dissatisfaction among SubbaRow’s admirers in the scientific community and among the public at large that a Bharat Ratna has eluded him posthumously as had a Nobel in his lifetime.

Meanwhile there is no stopping the juggernaut of SubbaRow’s virtual panaceas, folic acid, Methotrexate, tetracycline and DEL. There is no end to the ever new miracles being performed by the Miracle Man’s Miracle Drugs. The new 21st Century conquests by his 20th Century remedies are reported every now and then. The latest report by medical investigators, in the second quarter of 2002, is that folic acid has proved to be a male fertility drug.

SubbaRow would have considered these rewards to be fulfilling enough although they would not have induced the medical warrior to retired from his battles against diseases which still afflict humankind!