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The search SubbaRow 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.

Along with pheno‑sulphazole on trial in the Texas polio epidemic of 1948 was an antibiotic called Aureomycin. It too did not make the grade in the fight against the crippling disease but it was one of the first drugs to be effective against viruses and rickettsiae. Rickettsiae occupy a position between viruses and bacteria.

The discovery and development of Aureomycin came from a screening programme SubbaRow instituted in the spring of 1944 simultaneously with the programme that got him Hetrazan. It was an antibiotic SubbaRow had acquired with the help of "amateurs", men with no pre-conceived ideas who investigated the unknown with a truly scientific spirit.

SubbaRow had by then completed his work on fermentation and isolation of penicillin and wanted to look for sources of new antibiotics. Since filamentous moulds, Aspergilli and Penicillia, had all been surveyed extensively, he wished to institute a more thorough examination of Actinomycetes. Actinomycetes are close to bacteria in appearance but resemble fungi in their growth. His decision was influenced by the recent announcement of streptomycin obtained from an actinomycete and by the feeling that bacteria had not received due attention as antibiotic producers because penicillin had overshadowed gramicidin.           

SubbaRow got his first amateur when he looked for a plant physiologist for his antibiotic screening programme.  Remembering his pleasant meeting with an old plant physiologist at the University of Wisconsin, he asked Ed Backus on his mycology group to write to his brother at Madison to meet the professor and secure the services of one of his students.  Benjamin Minge Duggar, when approached by the elder Backus, said his own services were available for SubbaRow. A distinguished authority on fungus diseases of plants, he had retired some six months earlier with the reputation as one who had made mushroom cultivation in the United States independent of European spawn.

SubbaRow had reservations about "prima donnas" but was touched by the fact that Duggar had to retire because of the age rule. Duggar was not only active but anxious to dedicate the evening of his life to something of more significance to human welfare than mushroom cultivation. He was willing to screen plant extracts and mould broths. It was a job he had never done before and he would not be handicapped by experience and theories.

Duggar came over on April 1, 1944. He began to screen soil and other samples received from everywhere. He prefixed A to code numbers for actinomycetes that he isolated and B for bacteria.

His first break came with B-71, the 71st bacterial isolate, found in a sample of Colorado soil. To let Duggar concentrate on actinomycetes, SubbaRow handed over the isolate identified as Bacillus polymyxa to John Porter, a mycologist on his staff. Porter and his associates were able to secure from this the antibiotic polymyxin. Polymyxin was found by physicians to be effective against undulant fever, whooping cough and meningitis. But SubbaRow withdrew it as it was somewhat harmful to kidneys.

Meanwhile in August 1945, Du-ggar noticed a beautiful growth on agar in test tubes to which he had trans�ferred actinomycetes isolated from some University of Missouri soil samples. The conspicuous grey‑brown spores at the top were followed by a pink and a white zone ending in a moist golden area at the bottom. On agar plates, the actinomycete produced an antibiotic which arrested the growth of a broad spectrum of deadly disease germs ‑-those susceptible as well as those resistant to the then known sulphas and antibiotics.

 Exciting as the versatility of A‑377 (the 377th actinomycete isolated), Duggar was disappointed it was not active against the tubercle germ. An anti‑TB drug more potent but safer than streptomycin was one of the objectives set for him.

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