"One of the most eminent medical minds of the century" - New York Herald Tribune - DailyWearForMedicine.com
By Ramana Annamraju
His name is Dr.Yellapragada Subbarao (1895 - 1948), whom they call him later, with the anglicized name, Dr.Subbarow. I refer to him in this article, with my native language Telugu name, Dr.Subbarao. Dr.Subbarao was born in the coastal town of Bhimavaram, the state of Andhra Pradesh, India. Another name for this town is Somarama, home of, one of the five sacred temples of Lord Shiva. Bhimavaram is a picturesque place surrounded by rice paddies, bananas, and palm trees.
Education is not Subbarao's first choice. He failed high school three times. He wants to be a banana trader, unheard of for a brahmin boy. In a series of coincidences and tragedies ( both of his brothers died of Tropical infection a few days apart ), he enrolled in Madras Medical school in 1915. After graduation, he had a brief stint teaching at Madras Ayurveda school.
Then there was life calling. Traveled to America and enrolled in Tropical medicine at Harvard medical school in 1923. He also earned Ph.D. in biochemistry along with his diploma in Tropical medicine. Dr. Subbarao's discoveries, one after the other, can amaze even seasoned scientists. The first of his series of discoveries is, the measurement of phosphorus in the body...Phosphorus is essential for bones and teeth. Ironically, Banana is high in phosphor. The subsequent discovery is the function of adenosine triphosphate (ATP) as an energy source for the cell.
Then came the mother of all his discoveries, the drug for cancer. In 1946 cancer prognosis was grim. Childhood Leukemia is a cancer of the blood which is prevalent cancer among children. Since blood is disseminated throughout the entire body, surgery or radiation would not work. The only option is a targeted drug. Then Dr. Subbarao's discovery changed it all. "Methotrexate" is a chemical analog of folic acid developed by Dr. Subbarao, became the go-to medicine for chemotherapy. Methotrexate is still being widely used in cancer of the uterus, breast cancer, lung cancer, head and neck cancers, lymphoma, and leukemia. It is also prescribed for ectopic pregnancies, Rheumatoid arthritis, Skin Psoriasis, multiple sclerosis, Lupus, and ulcerative colitis.
His discoveries did not stop there. He is instrumental in developing the most popular and World Health Organization essential drug called "Hetrazan". It is being used against the most pervasive tropical disease called pulmonary eosinophilia and other types of tropical diseases.
Dr. Subbarao left his staffing position at Harvard Medical school and became Director of Research at Lederle laboratories in 1940. Lederle was a small but prestigious company located in Pearl River, NY, 30 miles from Manhattan.
Benjamin Duggar, an eccentric Botanist in his early 70s and son of a plantation owner from Alabama, was looking for a job,. But no one wanted to hire him because of his advanced age and declining demand for his specialty. Dr.Subbarao wanted an experienced Botanist to assist him in hunting for the holy grail of broad-spectrum antibiotics.
It paid off. This odd couple found a unique gold-colored mold from the fields of Missouri just doing that, killing both gram-positive and gram-negative bacteria in Petri dishes. They named the drug “Aureomycin “( Latin for Gold). They were elated with the results. They could not find a hospital to conduct clinical trials. .Dr. Subbarao and Duggar approached Dr. Louis Wight, an eminent African American surgeon from Harlem Hospital. Dr. Louis Wright was the son of slaves from LaGrange, Georgia Harvard alumni a highly respected physician. He has already published more than 90 papers in prestigious scientific journals. The clinical trials in early 1948 turned with resounding success. The first broad-spectrum antibiotic, Aureomycin, a class of tetracyclines, wiped out chlamydia bacteria. It was very effective with a host of other bacterial infections. Aureomycin became the preferred prescription by the end of 1948.
Unfortunately, Dr. Subbarao did not see the glory of his discoveries. He passed away in his sleep at age of 53 on August 8th,1948, in Pearl River, New York. Later through a series of changing hands Dr. Subbarao's Lab Lederle became part of present-day Pfizer labs. This odd triple, a plantation owner’s son, a son of slaves, and a hard to pronounce foreigner from my home town joined hands together and made history in medicine. Dr. Subbarao’s series of discoveries are nothing but stellar. He was not just an unsung hero of my hometown but turned out to be a true savior of the world.
Simply mind-boggling for a man, you may not know how to say his name, but his name is inscribed with golden letters in the world of medicine. He died the same year as India's freedom fighter Gandhi. Gandhi won freedom for India, an his ardent follower Dr. Yallapragada Subbarao, won freedom from fatal diseases for the entire world.
On a personal note, his discovery of "Hetrazen" tablets saved my life from fatal tropical disease. I was born and grew up in the same town as he was. I walked on the same streets as he was. I attended the same temple as he was. His name is the same as my father's name. I would be surprised if I am not related to him. But the irony is that I never heard his name!!. I am honored to bring my hometown hero to the limelight through this T-shirt.
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