Thursday, March 12, 2015

Yella's Discoveries

One of the simple pleasures of life is to find an Indian-sounding name in a piece of work that touches excellence. Quite often, I find myself waiting for the credits to roll at the end of a great movie, or flipping through the 'acknowledgements' section of a book, or a computer app, just to take delight at the number of such names that turn up.

Yesterday, I started on a book that had such a name right on the front-cover: Siddhartha Mukherjee's "The Emperor of All Maladies". It won the Pulitzer Prize in 2011 but, until now, I had put it away, assuming that it was a work of fiction that was somehow connected to Jumpa Lahiri's "Interpreter of Maladies". Never have I been so wrong about titles!

The book actually combines three things that I would never tire of -- history, science and technology. It is a biography of a disease we all dread - Cancer.

Right at the beginning of the story, amid 20th century scientists of Europe and USA struggling to understand this strange disease, an Indian name pops up in the most unlikely place and time - Yellapragada Subbarow at Harvard Medical School, 1923. Yella was a product of Madras Medical College, but his degree was not recognized, so he started all over again at Harvard as a biochemist, supporting himself by working as a part-time janitor, cleaning halls and toilet-bowls.

Down the road, he went on to discover the role of phosphocreatine, adenosine triphosphate (ATP) as an energy source in the cell, and developed methotrexate for the treatment of cancer. He discovered polymyxin widely used even today in cattle-feed and aureomycin (the first broad-spectrum antibiotic), and the first of tetracycline antibiotics. SubbaRow and his team of organic and biological chemists isolated folic acid from liver and a microbial source and then synthesized it in 1945. As Director of Research at Lederle, he  found in Hetrazan  (diethylcarbamazine (DEC), the cure for filariasis. The method for estimating phosphorous is called the Fiske-SubbaRow Method.

According to Banerjee, "Any one of these achievements should have been enough to guarantee him a professorship at Harvard. But Subbarow was a foreigner, a reclusive, nocturnal, heavily accented vegetarian who lived in a one-room apartment downtown, befriended only by other nocturnal recluses".

How is it that we never heard about him in our own school science textbooks?

  • Mukherjee, Siddhartha (2011): EMPEROR OF ALL MALADIES - A BIOGRAPHY OF CANCER, Scribner, 2011 -- url -- 
  • Indian Academy of Clinical Medicine --
  • Wiki -
  • Yellapragada Subbarow (12 January 1895 – 9 August 1948) --
  • Miracle Man of Miracle Drugs -- 

No comments: