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Subba Row: A forgotten trailblazer

Born in 1895 in Bhimavaram (now in Andhra Pradesh), Subba Row’s early life wasn’t particularly promising
Last Updated 27 February 2023, 21:31 IST

‘‘You’ve probably never heard of Dr Yellapragada Subba Row,” wrote Doron K Antrim in April 1950. “Yet because he lived, you may live longer. The New York Tribune was equally effusive in its praise, stating, “Few laymen knew directly of Subbarow’s work... but many advances in modern medicine stand as a monument to his genius, and countless thousands will benefit for years to come from investigations he set in motion and supervised.” These words, written soon after Subba Row’s death, hold true even today.

So who was this scientist who remained in the shadows then and continues to do so?

Born in 1895 in Bhimavaram (now in Andhra Pradesh), Subba Row’s early life wasn’t particularly promising. He played truant from school and attempted to decamp to Varanasi, but was dissuaded. He failed his matriculation twice, so his mother sold her jewellery to send him to the Hindu High School in Madras (Chennai) to finish his education. In Madras, the Ramakrishna Mission attracted him, and perhaps as a result of that, he committed to his education.

In 1915, he enrolled at the Madras Medical College; his journey was eased by financial support from friends and from Kasturi Suryanarayana Murthy, whose daughter he later married. He did well, but his insistence on wearing khadi in response to Gandhi’s call got him into trouble. Instead of the MBBS degree, he was awarded the lesser LMS certificate (Licentiate of Medicine and Surgery).

As things looked set to get better, tragedy struck. Tropical sprue, an intestinal condition, claimed two of his brothers. Subba Row persevered despite his grief, teaching at his alma mater and researching Ayurvedic treatments. Given his interest in research, the US beckoned, and financial help was arranged to help him make the journey. Arriving in Boston in October 1922, Subba Row enrolled at the Harvard Medical School. He supported himself by cleaning hospital bedpans and doing other odd jobs.

After obtaining a diploma in tropical medicine from the school, Subba Row joined the biochemistry laboratory of Dr Cyrus Fiske. Together, they devised the “Fiske–Subba Row method” for estimation of phosphorous in body fluids and tissues, an important tool to diagnose disorders of the thyroid and renal rickets and something still taught to biochemistry students. In 1927 came the discovery of phosphocreatine, and in 1929, the year he was awarded his PhD, came the identification of adenosine triphosphate, the chief energy source in the cell.

Subba Row’s discoveries didn’t take him very far in his career, though. He did not get a permanent position at Harvard and remained a junior faculty member. He then took to working weekends at Lederle Laboratories (now a part of Pfizer). It was a demanding schedule, but he persisted, his dedication to research taking precedence over everything else.

In 1942, he moved to Lederle full-time to head its research department. At Lederle, his search for antibiotics with a 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 the tetracycline antibiotics that we have all had at some time or another in our lives. A website dedicated to his life says, “Tetracyclines have saved millions of lives over the last 50 years.”

Subba Row and his team of chemists also isolated folic acid from the liver and a microbial source and synthesised it in 1945. This turned out to be a cure for tropical sprue!

Another discovery was the development of methotrexate, the world’s first chemotherapic agent. Given the breadth of his scientific contributions, it is odd that he is still relatively unknown. His colleague and Nobel laureate George Hitchings said, “Some of the nucleotides isolated by Dr Subba Row had to be rediscovered years later by other workers because Fiske, apparently out of jealousy, did not let Subba Row’s work see the light of day.” This is perhaps one explanation. Another is his self-effacing attitude. Apparently, he once remarked, “The victories of science are rarely won single-handed. No one man should get the (entire) credit.” It is not at all bad though.

After the death of Row in August 1948, a drug was named after him—Subbaromyces Splendens. In 1995, the Indian Postal Department issued a stamp in his honour. Siddharth Mukherjee’s book Emperor of All Maladies credits him as a trailblazing researcher in the quest to find a cancer cure. On National Science Day, observed on February 28 (the day C V Raman made his significant discovery), could Subba Row’s example spur Indian science on?

(The writer is a publishing professional who writes on literature, language, and history.)

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(Published 27 February 2023, 17:39 IST)

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