By Vaidehi Nathan
When he was 13-years old, he made a plan to go to Varanasi and become a millionaire by selling bananas to visiting pilgrims. He calculated that the number of pilgrims visiting Varanasi was very high and banana was the common fruit everybody bought. That was Yellapragada Subbarow, who went on to become a great bio-medic scientist, discovering such path-breaking combinations as tetracycline, folic acid and vitamin B.
His run to Varanasi of course ended in a few hours as one of his cousins gave the plan away. Born on January 12, 1895, in a Telugu Brahmin family, Subbarow received formal education at the local school at first. He was then sent to the Hindu High School, in Madras. By this time, his father had died and his mother sold her last ornament to pay for his matriculation (tenth standard) examination.
Wanting to become a monk, he went to the Ramakrishna Ashram. He was told there that he would need his mother´s permission to become a monk. The mother refused. Subbarow, however, continued visiting the Ashram and learnt the Vedas, Upanishad and the Bhagavad Gita. When he cleared his intermediate (twelfth stan-dard) he applied for admission in Madras Medical College. He did so because the Ashram people had told him that he could serve the humanity through the Ashram´s clinic, without becoming a monk.
While he was in medical college, he fell ill with sprue (a tropical disease). His mother took him to an Ayurveda practitioner, who cured him. The simple treatment of Ayurveda interested Subbarow, who set out to master that also. In 1923, he went to America, eager to pursue his scientific research. He was admitted to the Harvard. He worked in various capacities in the lab, simultaneous with his studies.
Tetracycline was the compound used in the outbreak of plague in India at that time. It was dis-covered by Subbarow. He had also developed folic acid, which provi-des the cure for anaemia. He led the team that discovered many anti-biotics. But when it came to the time for taking credit, he pushed the junior members ahead, content with sitting at the last bench and clapping. Some of his colleagues attributed this to his shy, introvert nature. But some said it was because every time he discovered something, he believed he was poised to make greater discoveries. So he was happy to push others ahead.
However, he died at the age of 54, suddenly, in sleep, on August 7, 1948. After leaving India, he never visited it once. At one point he even wrote to his wife, releasing her from the bonds of marriage. He regularly sent money to his wife and mother and contributed all that he earned to various charities and Indian institutions. The medical world in America mourned his death. In India, he was largely unknown. The Government of India released a stamp in his memory on the occasion of his birth centenary in 1995. Next time, you buy a stamp, ask for the Subbarow stamp and keep it in your collection.