This is an album in words and pictures which tell the story of an India born biochemist turned wizard of wonder drugs.
Millions live longer a more satisfying life because of the folic acid vitamin, the tetracycline antibiotics, an anti filarial and anti cancer drugs developed under the research direction of Dr Yellapragada SubbaRow (1895-1948) at Lederle Laboratories in USA.
The story is of a Brahmin boy who sought his prime motive in religion but found it in science, of his quest for life saving drugs which took him to Harvard, of its interruption by basic research into the mystery how life is fuelled by biochemical energy, and of the quest resumed and fulfilled in a pharmaceutical laboratory.
On his death, The New York Herald Tribune hailed him as “one of the most eminent medical minds of the century”. The Jewish Advocate remembered him as “a giant among pygmies”.
Based on the highly acclaimed biography IN QUEST OF PANACEA: Successes and Failures of Yellapragada SubbaRow by S P K Gupta in collaboration with Dr Edgar L. Milford (Evelyn Publishers) and drawing on the picture collection of Mr. Gupta, the album is scripted by Raji Narasimhan, the Novelist, and designed by Narendra Srivastava, Jawaharlal Nehru Fellowship winning artist.
Raji Narasimhan gave up in the late 1960s a rising career in journalism to devote herself whole-time to fiction and literary criticism but she briefly wrote in the late 1970s a weekly feature for the Hindustan Times.
She has published five novels, The Heart of Standing is You Cannot Fly, Forever Free, Drifting to a Dawn, The Sky Changes and Atonement, and a Volume of short stories, The Marriage of Bela and Other Stories.
Mrs Narasimhan has done a good deal of translation, mainly from Hindi to English, notably Rajee Seth’s novel published in English as Unarmed. She translates Hindi literary criticism for the English-language journal HINDI.
Her work of literary criticism, Sensibility Under Stress: Aspects of Indo-English Fiction, was one of Times of India’s Ten Best Books of the Year 1976. Her critical articles, appraisals and essays have appeared in THE HINDU, THE INDIAN EXPRESS, DECCAN HERALD, Sahitya Akadami’s INDIAN LITERATURE, THE JOURNAL of the Poetry Society (India) and the Poetry Club’s CONTINUUM.
Mrs Narasimhan is currently engaged in putting together a second volume of short stories, and a volume of critical articles.
My first encounter, though virtual, with Dr. Yellapragada SubbaRow was as a student of chemistry in the Andhra University. To the boy of 14 that I was, the domain of chemistry was a Magic Kingdom, full of colour and power, awesome power indeed over nature but power in the service of mankind. I was convinced that the Magic Kingdom lay in the JVD College where the Department of Chemistry was situated. The college building with its rectangular clock tower itself inspired aura. To a contemporary of mine, who wrote an autobiographical novel, the rectangular tower clock with four faces was Chaturmukha Brahma, the four-faced Brahma. The main lecture hall of the Chemistry Department was a galIery flanked by a staircase adorned on either side by the portraits of great chemists. It was as if we were in communion with the gods themselves. In that pantheon of gods was Dr. SubbaRow. We were told that he made great discoveries in medicinal chemistry. However, unlike others in the pantheon, he was a strange god. For the excellent collection in the University library threw no light on him. He remained a mystery till two decades later when I chanced to come across a review in the Economic Times of a biography of Dr. SubbaRow by Shri S.P.K Gupta entitled In Quest of Panacea. The review led me to the book. But for Shri Gupta, Dr. SubbaRow would have continued to be "a gem of purest ray serene" that "the dark unfathomed caves" of Science bear. All of us owe an immense debt of gratitude to Shri Gupta. Against heavy odds and with missionary zeal, Shri Gupta has been striving to secure for this great son of India his due recognition in his native land. Earlier discoverers of antibiotics like Fleming, Chain and Florey for Penicillin and Waksman for Streptomycin won Nobels. Had Dr. SubbaRow, who gifted the tetracycline antibiotics to humanity, secured a Nobel Prize like them, Shri Gupta would have lost his mission.
This book is in a sense a companion volume to the biography. It deals with the work as well as the life of Dr. SubbaRow though with a greater emphasis on the life. These are days when several Indians have scaled great heights of achievement in the United States in several fields like business, academia and Government. However, they face far less odds than pioneers like Dr. SubbaRow and Kolachala Seeta Ramayya. And yet the record of Dr. SubbaRow has been rarely equalled. For he rose to be, in October 1942, Director of Research of Lederle, the pharmaceutical division of the chemical giant American Cyanamid, and guided its R&D efforts till he died in harness in August 1948.
While the scientific contributions of Dr. SubbaRow are now quite well known and lauded, SubbaRow the man is still a mystery. Shri Gupta needs to be specially commended for his efforts to unravel the mystery.
Who was SubbaRow? What was his Being? What did he become? Why did he become what he became? These are interesting questions: a clue to these is provided by the two letters on religion published in the volume. Dr. SubbaRow defies alI classification. He was a scientist, a philosopher, a spiritual man in search of 'fame' who was constantly unravelling the mysteries of nature but without losing focus that discoveries are to be pursued to improve the lives of the people and not for commercial purposes. Through science he tried to establish a relationship with God and his fellowmen. What makes him a unique personality was his approach to the pursuit of knowledge. He explored and sought knowledge for its own sake and not as a means for personal achievement or glory. Scientific reasoning and observation to him were not merely the tools of his experimentation to transcend nature; they were also the means to undertake a journey into his inner self.
His relentless urge to seek knowledge led him to many important research discoveries in medical science. Yet, when it came to claiming the credit, he preferred to receive it as the collective effort of a team. This sense of submerging the individuality without any remorse was his own way of stating that man relates not only to God but also to his fellowmen. Remarkably, he practised these virtues in a foreign land amidst a culture which takes pride in individualism and its rewards. This speaks of his upbringing and his sense of conviction in the values he imbibed in his childhood.
Dr. SubbaRow believed that the scientist's creativity and originality flow from the freedom of thought enjoyed by him. Nevertheless, he was acutely conscious that this freedom of thought can also lead to dangerous temptations of power and self righteousness. The only way these temptations can be avoided is by subjecting the creative thought to the discipline of prayer. He was a true agnostic in his pursuit of knowledge and yet he was very clear that knowledge is ultimately a tool for the service and benefit of humanity and not for self-glorification.
Dr. SubbaRow's impatience with life is manifested in his seemingly whimsical switches of interest before ever consolidating his gains in whatever he did. Apparently, his restlessness reflects a genius that wanted to accomplish much more than what was physically possible. He did not want to be part of a rat race. Though essentially a religious person, he considered religion to be a dynamic subject rather than a static code of established principles. He was a visionary who wished to be a perfectionist both in his science and 'self' but did not want to accept the established principles and codes as a given truth. He desired to experience and experiment at every stage: "I am too restless to be able to say what my views are or even to promise they wiII be my beliefs in the next one year. I have to work them out in my own way. Listening to the views of all of you and trying to integrate them into one whole. I suppose even then I will only approach and never arrive."
The life of Dr. SubbaRow is an example of how religion and tradition need not necessarily be incongruous and incompatible with the scientific temper, also of how they can foster modernity and development. Dr. SubbaRow is an anachronism in today’s world which is more intensely individualistic than the world in which he lived and excelled.
The Publication Programme of Vigyan Prasar has taken some shape in the last few years. To start with, Vigyan Prasar brought out a number of publications on a variety of topics of science and technology on an experimental basis. Popular Science classics, India’s Scientific Heritage, Natural History, Health, and Do-It-Yourself are some of the series that evolved over the years. Our emphasis has been on bringing out quality publications on various aspects of science and technology at affordable prices. Further, Vigyan Prasar is putting in efforts to bring out publications in major Indian languages for various target groups.
The present book Yellapragada SubbaRow: A Life in Quest of Panacea is about a great life in science. SubbaRow is one of those few individuals who toiled and struggled to achieve seemingly impossible feats. His life is bound to inspire the youth to take up challenges and to rise above mediocrity. SubbaRow was the man behind development of many wonderful life - savings drugs-antibiotics, vitamins and so on. He worked on fundamental concepts in biochemistry. His interest was not confined to scientific research alone. He was a great adventurer. He tried his hand at many diverse things.
We are thankful to Shri S.P.K. Gupta for helping us in bringing out this volume. Shri Gupta has made sincere efforts in spreading the message of SubbaRow's life through various means. The present book is based on an earlier book In Quest of Panacea: Successes and Failures of Yellapragada SubbaRow by Shri SPK Gupta in collaboration with Dr. Edgard L. Milford. The text of the present book has been written by Raji Narasimhan, a well-known novelist. We do hope the book is received enthusiastically. We are grateful to Dr. R. V. Vaidyanatha Ayyar for writing the Preface.
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