Dr. Yellapragada Subbarao

Those were the dark days when people used to die of fever. A simple bacterial infection used to be fatal. Under such circumstances was discovered the first successful commercially marketable antibiotic of the modern era which revolutionized the field of medicine (I have carefully used the words here as I am aware that turmeric was used over centuries in India as an effective antibiotic)

To this day, Penicillin, the archetype of antibiotics remains a popular drug of choice for many infections and the fact that Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin is known even by school going children.

Now even as we celebrate the contributions of Dr Fleming to modern medicine here is a glaring paradox.

This is the dark age of cancer. Various cancers kill millions of people across the globe. There is on going research to develop various anticancer drugs. There are super-rich pharmaceutical companies claiming patent over various anticancer drugs that has resulted in sky-rocketing prices of these drugs keeping them beyond the reach of the common man.

However did you know that the scientist who developed one of the first anticancer drugs did not claim patent to his discovery? He didn’t even gain popularity like other scientists (or should I say western scientists?) He never tried to acquire fame which is so sought after by one and all. He was not even accorded due recognition for his phenomenal discoveries. He quietly remained in the background unnoticed and unacknowledged.

It fills with pride to note that such a magnanimous scientist was an Indian. I am certain most people including doctors wouldn’t have heard of Yellapragada Subbarao, the developer of Methotrexate a wonderful chemotherapeutic agent that is found to be useful not only against cancer but also against many debilitating auto-immune diseases like Rheumatoid Arthritis, Lupus, Psoriasis etc.

He discovered a drug for Filariasis as well and discovered the role of Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP) in muscular activity. Yet no Nobel prize was awarded !

His name doesn’t find a mention even in our medical books though most doctors are very familiar with and use routinely the drugs he invented.

What is striking to note is the unostentatiousness of this great scientist who gave to humanity two wonderful drugs. In spite of being a man of high caliber, like those typical Indians of a bygone era, he remained hidden from the public eye, untouched by any fanfare.

Years later someone rightly said “You’ve probably never heard of Dr. Yellapragada Subbarao. Yet because he lived you may be alive and are well today. Because he lived you may live longer.”

Hats off to this great Indian scientist !


~ by Dr. Sushruth Athreya


Dr. Yellapragada Subbarao