“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
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
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
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