- Y. Subba Row (1895-1948)
YERLAGADDA SUBBA Row was born on January 12, 1895 at Bhimavaram in the old Madras Presidency. He passed through a traumatic period in his schooling at Rajahmundry and could eventually matriculate in his third attempt from the Hindu High School, Madras.
He passed the Intermediate Examination from the Presidency College and entered the Madras Medical College, where his education was supported by friends and Kasturi Suryanarayana Murthy, whose daughter he married later. Following Gandhiji's call to boycott British goods he started wearing khadi surgical gloves; this incurred the displeasure of M.C.Bradfield, his surgery professor. Consequently, though he did well in the written papers, he was awarded the lesser LMS certificate and not the MBBS degree.
Subba Row tried to enter the Madras Medical Service without success. He then took up a job as Lecturer in Anatomy at Dr.Lakshmipathi's Ayurvedic College at Madras. He was fascinated by the healing powers of Ayurvedic medicines and began to engage in research to put Ayurveda on a modern footing.
A chance meeting with an American doctor, who was visiting on a Rockefeller Scholarship changed his mind. The promise of support from Satyalinga Naicker Charities, Kakinada and financial assistance raised by his father-in-law, enabled Subba Row to proceed to the U.S.
He landed in Boston on October 26, 1923 and the real struggle started.
A generous person, by name Dr.Strong, came to his rescue and met his immediate expenses. His medical degree would not qualify for a scholarship or get him internship in Boston Hospitals. He made up by taking on various odd jobs.
Subba Row obtained the Diploma of the Harvard School of Tropical Medicine in June 1924. He then joined the Biochemistry Department and worked under the guidance of Cryrus Fiske in the area of muscle chemistry.
He developed a method for estimation of phosphorous in body fluids and tissues. This got entry into the biochemistry textbooks in 1930s. He got his Ph.D degree the same year.
Subba Row continued his research for a decade more at Harvard. His own independent contributions were hailed by his colleagues.
But he was denied elevation to a regular faculty position. He moved to Ledrale Laboratories, then a little known pharmaceutical firm, in 1940. He embarked on a programme of developing new drugs: this opened new approaches for the treatment of nutritional infections and worm-transmitted diseases.
He was Director of Research till August 1948: he was found dead (possibly due to coronary thrombosis) by his associates on a Monday afternoon. He was 53 years old. He was then in the prime of his research career.
Formulation of new drugs
Subba Row established a project for protecting American soldiers fighting in the Pacific, from malaria and filariasis. He developed the wonder drug Hetrazan. WHO spread its adoption as a key element in its worldwide campaign to eradicate filariasis.
He employed Dr. Benjamin Duggar to screen thousands of soil samples for anti-biotic producing bacteria and fungi. In august 1945, an interesting golden yellow mould was seen in a culture dish inoculated with extracts from soil samples.
This proved to be a potent antibiotic producer. The antibiotic was extracted in pure crystalline form, first in the tetra-cyline group.
For the first time, a single drug called Aureomycin could be used for controlling both gram-positive and the gram-negative bacterial germs. Fleming's penicillin could battle only the former, whereas Waksman's streptomycin only the latter.
Our nation owes a deep debt to Subba Row, for the antibiotics he discovered saved thousands of lives in 1995, when plague broke out in the states of Gujarat and Maharashtra.
His colleague, George Hitchings who shared the Nobel Prize with Gertrude Elion (The Hindu, September 5, 2001), said: "Some of the nucleotides isolated by Subba Row had to be rediscovered years later by other workers because Fiske, apparently out of jealousy, did not let Subba Row's contributions see the light of the day" (In Quest of Panacea by S.P.K. Gupta, 1999).
American Cynamid honoured his memory with a plaque at its research laboratory and inaugurated the Subba Row library. A drug was named Subbaromyces splendens.
A memorial postage stamp was released and a bust erected in Hyderabad. A.C. College of Technology, Guindy sponsored a seminar to commemorate his memory.
The man who headed medical research during World War II, had to remain an alien, without the status of a green-card holder.
Many may not have heard the name of a man: in the medical world his contributions made a dynamic impact.
Many many thanks to “Apoorva Chandar” for providing ACK scan.