By M.V. Kamath
Yellapragada Subba Row: A Life in Quest of Panacea?An Album in Words and Pictures by Raji Narasi-mhahan; Vigyan Prasar, Delhi, 143 pp, Rs 295.00
ASK any graduating student from any university whether he is aware of someone called Yellapragada Subba Row and the answer probably will be: ?Yellapragada what?? For Subba Row belonged to a generation long forgotten, for he died in 1948, still in his early fifties. If he had lived a couple of years more, two things might have happened to him: he may have finally become an American citizen and he may have won a Nobel Prize for chemistry. But on both counts fate decided otherwise.
He was born in a village in Andhra Pradesh, the fourth of seven children in a family of impoverished Brahmins. That was hardly a good beginning for a scientist who went on to discover the tetracyclines, among other miracle drugs. In his childhood, poverty hounded him. It is said that he passed his matriculation examination at the third attempt. He wanted to join the Ramakrishna Mission. His mother wouldn´t give him the necessary permission. But the Mission persuaded him to take up medicine as a career and gave him the hope that as a doctor he could possibly get a place in the medical relief work that the Mission ran all over the country.
He was persuaded to marry and he let himself to be persuaded. He couldn´t get a full medical degree but managed to get an LMS?a licence to practice. His dream was to do research. At one stage, he even compiled a 427-page manuscript on the vegetable drugs of north India as described by some of the greats in Ayurveda, men like Charaka, Dhrudhabala, Vrudha, Susruta and Vagbhata.
Those were the days when the United States seemed a distant and impossible dream. In the early 1920s, there were hardly some 3,200 Indians resident in the States. Subba Row went to America in 1923 at the age of 28 having won admission to the Harvard School of Tropical Medicine. He had applied for a job in the provincial medical service of Madras but could not get it. He reached American shores with just $25 in his pocket. Racism was then very much prevalent in America and Subba Row had to struggle right from the start. He couldn´t get an internship to make a living. He had to work as a night porter. But such was his academic brilliance, which was discovered by his teachers quickly enough, that he obtained a research assignment. Within no time, he had discovered the function and presence of phosphocreatine in the contraction of muscles in the body. Other assignments followed in quick succession.
With primitive equipment Subba Row came up with nicotinic acid, considered the cure for black tongue and pellagra, even when others tried to snatch credit from him. He couldn´t care less. What hurt was Harvard´s neglect of him. As the author of this work writes: ?It (Harvard) couldn´t give him the professorship he deserved every way, couldn´t give him the facilities he needed for his researches. Half-way measures were all it could or would make.? But that did not bother Subba Row. But an American pharmaceutical company had set its eyes on him. The company was Lederle. As this book says: ?Underpaid, under-recognised, but touchingly cheerful with colleagues of limited means so much like himself, Subba Row was ripe, despite himself, for the overtures from Lederle.? And Lederle was to make him famous.
In 1940, he became first Associate Director of Research and subsequently Director, at Lederle Laboratories Division, American Cyanamid Company, in New York state. It was here that Subba Row did some of his intensive research of great value. He became interested in the folic acid problem when it became apparent to him that such substances as Vitamin M, Vitamins B10 and N11 and some other drugs were all related to the single compound, folic acid. He and his research associates synthesised folic acid, now regarded as specific treatment for megaloblastic anaemias. What distinguished Subba Row from others was his style of functioning. As the author of this work puts it: ?With his clever and insightful mix of individualism and group spirit, he kept his team at a creative high most of the time, despite the disgruntled elements and their cribbing. All his path-breaking achievements in Lederle Laboratories came from this medley-cum-compact assemblage he built and sustained by the sheer strength of his personality.?
Lederle literally worshipped Subba Row. He was giving the company products like calcium pantothenate, riboflavin, pyridoxine and biotin that were highly marketable. Reading this volume is to be present in Lederle´s Laboratories, so rich is it in high drama. Just how folic acid was discovered makes one´s hair stand on end! There was an element of chance in it but only a genius could avail himself with an opportunity chance provided.
Then dawned the age of antibiotics. Subba Row wanted to start a programme to find an antibiotic of his own that would have a broader range against bacterial diseases, indeed, an antibiotic that would be panacea, a cure-all, for fevers of any kind. And he set about his task determinedly. The first com-pound, got from using a single ethyl radical as replacement was inactive.
Subba Row and his team perseverved. Some 84 compounds were prepared and tested and the 84th finally made it. It was called Hetrazan. Tests showed that it was cent per cent effective. Then came work on aureomycin?another tremendous success. It was publicly proclaimed on July 21, 1948. Subba Row died a fortnight later. What is so outstanding about this well-illustrated work is the detailed study of how Subba Row went to work on each drug that he discovered or help discover. What is remarkable about the man is his total unconcern towards fame. He was the very embodiment of that great saying in the Gita: one has the right only to work; one has to be disdainful of the fruits thereof.
But it is to the credit of Lederle´s that the firm never forgot him. At their laboratory there is a plaque commemorating his contributions to biochemistry. But the great thing about Subba Row was his fight against all odds, against the rigours of poverty, against the humiliation of racism, against the indifference of some of his early employers; indeed against the rigours of life itself. He overcame them all but before the world could finally acknow-ledge his great contribution, he was dead.
To millions of struggling Indians, he should be the role model. As a biography, this is a brilliant job. Of Yellapragada Subba Row it is said: ?Because he lived, you may be alive and well today. Because he lived, you may live a little longer.? And what great praise can be heaped on anyone, let alone a poor Brahmin boy of no means who made good in the United States of America? A Nobel may have eluded him, but not his eternal relevance.
(Vigyan Prasar, C-24 Qutub Institutional Area, New Delhi-110 016.)