...remain obscure in this age of instant communication?
SubbaRow was "a poor businessman" is the answer of a patent attorney who was astonished he had not taken any of the steps that scientists everywhere consider routine for linking their name to their handiwork. He was invariably in the audience when a colleague or a collaborator, pushed by him to the limelight, took the bow as each fruit of research directed by SubbaRow was revealed to the public. He never granted interviews to the press. He never made the rounds of the academics which apportion accolades among the achievers. He never went on lecture tours. He never did any of these and other things required of anyone with the least pretension to awards, honours and recognition and without which one cannot achieve glory. How then was he a 'glory‑hunter'? And what was the kind of fame he was after?
SubbaRow was only thirteen when he ran away from his poverty-stricken home in search of wealth and fame in Varanasi with a formula for making millions by selling bananas to pilgrims who flock the Holy City.
Intercepted and brought back, he was by his mother pushed determinedly to scholastic achievements, did well in mathematical studies and could well have won distinction as a wizard in mathematics.
But it seemed to him that politics, medicine, high finance and even humanitarianism as avenues to fame were all maya, mere illusion. Even good works were to be spurned as they brought rewards in kind. He would join the Ramakrishna Mission and become a sanyasin.
Since he could not be admitted into the monastic order without the permission of his mother who was keen on worldly successes for him, the Mission which believed in good works persuaded him to enter the medical college so that he could serve in its clinics as a doctor. His mother was puzzled but was reassured when he told her: "I must win a name in the world. Then only would life be worthwhile. If it comes to that, one must even be prepared to do something evil and win fame". As if to prove this, he married a rich girl to finance his medical education although he knew marriage and family life were not meant for him. His new goal would have permitted him to win fame by devoting his life to the treatment of the sick without expectations of financial reward, but his years in medical college convinced him that modern medicine was then powerless against many diseases.
He took up a position therefore in the Madras Ayurvedic College in the hope that he could wrest potent drugs from Ayurveda which had rescued him from the jaws of death a few years earlier when modern medicine had failed him. He quickly abandoned his quest for glory as a new synthesiser of the modern and ancient arts of healing the sick. The Ayurvedic College was not the place for any sustained medical research.
So he enrolled himself in the Harvard School of Tropical Medicine and earned its diploma at the price of a year of extreme personal privation. The Diploma was of no use to him as he never intended to use it for hanging out a doctor's shingle. But he used his foothold in Harvard to get enrolled in the biochemistry course of the Medical School. He made a spectacular start in the summer of 1924 and, before the year was out, the American Society of Biological Chemists set its seal of approval on a valuable laboratory tool he devised which is used to this date by biochemists the world over: "a rapid colorimetric method" for estimation of phosphorus in body fluids and tissues. He had worked out the method under the supervision of Dr. Cyrus Fiske and courtesy in research required that it bore the names of both men and association with a professor well established in the field would make the method more readily acceptable to the profession. So it was as "the Fiske‑SubbaRow Method" that it was presented in the biochemistry textbooks that came out in 1925.
A follow‑up study on the phosphorus method took him and Fiske on a wrong trail which nevertheless led them to "the greatest discovery" in twenty years of a world‑wide study of phosphorus metabolism ‑ a discovery that showed the Nobel Committee erred in awarding the 1922 prize in medicine and physiology to Archibald Hill and Otto Meyerhof for explaining muscular contraction in terms of the conversion of glycogen to lactic acid.
Phosphocreatine, and adenosine triphosphate (ATP) also discovered subsequently by SubbaRow in Fiske's laboratory, proved to be the sources of muscular energy which make possible all physical activities of living beings. The slowness of the biochemical orthodoxy in accepting new ideas, the natural reluctance of the prestigious Nobel Committee to admit it had awarded a prize rather prematurely and controversies over publication priorities cheated Fiske and SubbaRow of full credit for what is undoubtedly a key discovery in the understanding of the riddle of life itself. SubbaRow even renounced unhesitatingly personal credit for these discoveries when Fiske's promotion as head of the department of biochemistry hung in the balance in 1935. He told Harvard authorities that his own contributions were mostly technical and that the "brains behind the work as well as the finer side of the technique" were all entirely Fiske's.
SubbaRow had by then a new passion and the discoveries in muscle chemistry were for him entirely a matter of past record. He had just achieved a breakthrough in the concentration of the substance in liver that helped pernicious anaemia patients. He was entirely preoccupied with the isolation of this cure for a deficiency disease then believed to be closely related to tropical sprue which had afflicted all the Yellapragada brothers and taken the life of one.
The sacrifice severely handicapped him in his hunt for vitamins in liver. Harvard authorities saw no reason to promote from his lowly staff position one who, on his own admission, had been no more than a pair of extra hands for Fiske. Denied qualified assistants, laboratory facilities and budgets that would have gone with a faculty appointment that was his due, SubbaRow had to depend on outside help over which he had but a modicum of control for man‑power and material assistance, analytical work and clinical collaboration. His better endowed rivals won glory as discoverers of the vitamin properties of nicotinic acid and pantothenic acid. And the final step in the isolation of vitamin B12 eluded him.
SubbaRow left Harvard for Lederle Laboratories at Pearl River, New York State, which had a profitable business with liver preparations based on technical know‑how acquired from him in return for liver supplies and large‑scale isolation facilities on weekends. Lederle had turned to him in an effort to secure a place in the new field of vitamins and antibiotics which were rendering its mainline of vaccines, sera and tonics obsolete. This was SubbaRow's chance to provide modem medicine with an arsenal of potent drugs to fight disease.
In his new laboratories nestled in picturesque Rockland County, he gathered a group of young men fresh out of university graduate schools and some veteran science specialists and technicians.
After an initial incubation period of five years, SubbaRow and his team of young scientists and "amateur" experts, presented, in a fabulous three‑year period of great discoveries, to the medical world Folic Acid, anti-folics Aminopterin and Methotrexate the anti‑vitamins which opened up a hopeful new line of attack on cancer, Diethyl Carbamazine an anti‑filarial, and Aureomycin the parent tetracycline that is a panacea for many bacterial and some viral infections.
He was in the Harvard tradition "the brain" and could perhaps have claimed that the boys he had guided and inspired were just so many "hands". But that would have been unfair to them as it would have been so unworthy of himself. "The victories of science are rarely won single handed," he insisted. "No one man should get the credit."
SubbaRow, looking all the time for new drugs to conquer disease, did not pause to realise that he could be the symbol of achievements by the research teams he was directing in such masterly fashion, organising them, motivating them and helping them cross hurdles each time they were held up. His enthusiasm for brilliant members of his research teams was now so unbounded that he began to push into the limelight those whose dedication most nearly matched his own:
Coy Waller, the youngest member of his folic team, had in his opinion made the most outstanding contribution.
Sydney Farber, while treating leukaemia patients, switched from folic acid conjugates to folic acid antagonists and blazed the trail since followed by cancer fighters all over the world.
Redginal Hewitt noticed the antifilarial activity of a chemical among the scores sent to him for routine screening in rats and provided thereby the lead for synthesis of Hetrazan.
Benjamin Duggar screened thousands of moulds and supplied SubbaRow with hundreds of microbe killers one of which yielded Aureomycin, the world's first tetracycline antibiotic.
While Duggar as "discoverer" was presenting Aureomycin at the New York Academy of Sciences, SubbaRow was seen in the back row talking animatedly with an assistant about engineering plans for the new cancer research laboratory that would be built for him at a nearby town by his company.
SubbaRow died two weeks later, a stranger to Lady Fame whom he had pursued all his life but to whom he never presented his suit. His last expressed wish to colleagues was: "If God will spare me another couple of years, may be we can cure another disease."
The Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm which awards the Nobel Prize in physiology and medicine used to have a portrait of SubbaRow, and SubbaRow's colleagues who saw it in the 50's speculated whether he was ever considered for the Prize which so fascinated him during his early years at Harvard.
Poli Kittu, amateur Boy Scout in the Kannada play of the same name, was ever in quest of the daily good turn that would win recognition for him from the team, never realising that his spontaneous acts of aid and assistance to fellow humans were far worthier than those reported to the scout‑master by his peers.
SubbaRow never recognised any of his many contributions to the understanding of life processes and to the conquest of disease as worthy of the fame he thirsted for. A medical warrior's quest never ends so long as there is a single illness that remains to be conquered.
SubbaRow is not famous, but his gifts to biochemistry and medicine keep performing a million good turns for mankind each day around the world.