The Indian-American I didn’t know: Yellapragada Subbarao
March 24, 2014 § 6 Comments
I had never heard of Yellapragada Subbarao until I entered the exhibit “Beyond Bollywood: Indian Americans shape the nation.” My ignorance shocked me. As someone who holds bachelor’s and Ph.D. degrees in biochemistry and writes about biochemistry for a living, I thought I knew the movers and shakers in the field, both present and past. But here I was, ignorant about Subbarao and how he was involved in the discovery of ATP and phosphocreatinine and developing the chemotherapy drug methotrexate.
The exhibit, hosted by the Smithsonian Institution at the Natural History Museum (second floor, behind the gem and mineral store), showcases how Indians have come to the U.S. since the 1800s to carve out their livelihoods. As a newly minted U.S. citizen who was born in India and has roots in Kolkata, this exhibit held great personal appeal.
With mementos, video clips, photos and more, the exhibit describes how Indians, among other things, shaped U.S. immigration and naturalization policies and integrated into their new homeland. Parts of the exhibit were familiar, so familiar that it felt like stepping into a home of a childhood friend. I knew about Jhumpa Lahiri, Mindy Kaling and Nina Davuluri. Some parts enlightened me. I didn’t know about Brandon Chillar, but that wasn’t surprising because American football continues to puzzle me despite my 16 years here. But Subbarao stopped me short.
I didn’t recognize his photo or name. Yet, as I was about to walk by toward the section about music, I caught sight of “ATP” and “methotrexate” in the text next to his photo. I stopped in my tracks. I knew those words intimately so why didn’t I know “Subbarao”?
Concepts about ATP are taught in introductory molecular biology courses. Methotrexate pops up often in the scientific literature and continues to be used today in chemotherapy. If I knew about James Watson, Francis Crick, Gunter Blobel, Bruce Alberts and so on, why was the name of a fellow Indian biochemist unknown to me?
It turns out my ignorance wasn’t entirely my fault. According to my subsequent readings, Subbarao never was in the limelight (I am uncertain if he deliberately shunned it or if forces beyond his control didn’t give him greater prominence in the annals of biochemistry). Even two years after Subbarao’s death, a journalist named Doron Antrim wrote in 1950, “You’ve probably never heard of Dr. Yellapragada SubbaRow. Yet, because he lived, you may be alive and well today.”
(The spelling of Subbarao is confusing. I’ve seen two versions: Subbarao, according to the exhibit, and SubbaRow, according to his first U.S. publication in the Journal of Biological Chemistry. In my opinion, the latter sounds like an attempt to anglicize his name so non-Indian speakers didn’t butcher it as much. But since he himself used “SubbaRow” in his scientific publications, I will use it for the rest of the post.)
SubbaRow’s biography mirrors that of many Indian immigrants. After training as a medical and Ayurvedic practitioner, SubbaRow left Madras, India, in 1923 (Madras is now called “Chennai“). He carried with him an admissions letter to the Harvard University School of Tropical Medicine as he traveled on steamers. He left behind a pregnant wife. Their son was born in 1924 but died before his first birthday from erysipelas, a bacterial infection. SubbaRow never saw the boy, his wife or his family in India once he set sail for the U.S. His journey and studies in the U.S. were funded by his father-in-law.
In the U.S., Sabbarao did his Ph.D. work with Cyrus Hartwell Fiske. With Fiske, Sabbarao developed a simple color test for determining the phosphorus content, both inorganic and organic, in biological tissue (the paper describing the test is now a JBC Classic). Thanks to this test, Fiske and SubbaRow were able to demonstrate that phosphate in muscle existed in the form of phosphocreatine, an organic compound that is used as an energy source during muscle contraction. Later, in a Science paper in 1929, Fiske and SubbaRow described the isolation and characterization of ATP.
In 1940, SubbaRow left his position as a teaching fellow at Harvard to become the associate director of research at Lederle Laboratories (an arm of American Cyanamid, which was bought by Wyeth, which in turn was acquired by Pfizer). At Lederle, working with Sydney Farber, a former colleague from Harvard, SubbaRow’s team designed methotrexate, an antifolate drug. (To read more about Farber, check out “The Emperor of All Maladies” by Siddartha Mukherjee, another Indian-American highlighted at the “Beyond Bollywood” exhibit.)
SubbaRow’s other accomplishments included finding a drug for filariasis and discovering aureomycin, the first antibiotic that worked against both Gram-positive and Gram-negative bacteria. His achievements were so many that American Cyanamid later named a fungus in SubbaRow’s honor: Subbaromyces splendens. The Government of India released a commemorative stamp with him on it in 1995, his birthday centennial (were I living in India in 1995, I probably would have heard him then). In India, the National Institute of Indian Medical Heritage pays tribute to him.
A Washington Post reporter gave a lukewarm, almost derisive, review of the “Beyond Bollywood” exhibit, saying it felt like “a vanity project.” But vanity is all about wallowing in oneself, disregarding anyone or anything else. I feel “Beyond Bollywood” went beyond vanity. The exhibit showed that there was still room for me to learn about topics of which I thought I was an expert.