Muller Journal of Medical Sciences and Research

: 2013  |  Volume : 4  |  Issue : 2  |  Page : 130--132

Yellapragada Subba Row: The Unsung Hero

Priyanka Kamath, K Ashok Shenoy 
 Department of Pharmacology, Kasturba Medical College, Manipal University, Mangalore, Karnataka, India

Correspondence Address:
K Ashok Shenoy
Department of Pharmacology, Kasturba Medical College, Light House Hill Road, Mangalore - 575 001, Karnataka


A genius in more than one basic field, with many important discoveries/inventions such as folate, methotrexate, aureomycin, and diethylcarbamazine etc., The wonder drugs he created helped conquer many diseases considered incurable till then, and even today, these drugs continue to be used routinely. Also, his discoveries led to better understanding of various basic physiological processes in man. Though he received all the support for his research on foreign soil, it is said he always remained an Indian at heart. The accolades he received for his work were few, and moreover, delayed. This article briefly describes the journey of this great man, his discoveries and achievements, which even today remain largely unknown.

How to cite this article:
Kamath P, Shenoy K A. Yellapragada Subba Row: The Unsung Hero.Muller J Med Sci Res 2013;4:130-132

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Kamath P, Shenoy K A. Yellapragada Subba Row: The Unsung Hero. Muller J Med Sci Res [serial online] 2013 [cited 2020 Nov 24 ];4:130-132
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[AUTHOR:1]"You've probably never heard of Dr. Yellapragada Subba Row, yet because he lived you may live longer" wrote Doron K. Antrim in Argosy in April 1950.

There are many kinds of scientists we know through the lengthy pages of history. Many of them are remembered for one significant discovery which changed quite a few things that would have been prevalent at the time. Then there are a few who might have discovered two or more things which made them quite famous as well. Then there are people who have made significant discoveries or inventions, but never chose to earn through their work. They rather thought about the greater good that mankind would get from their work, such as Dr. Salk who never patented his polio vaccine as he wanted it to be affordable to all. And then there are people like Dr. Yellapragada Subba Row, a genius in more than one basic field with many important discoveries. He not only did not get the Nobel Prize, but he remained largely unknown even amongst his own contemporaries. This man was a wizard in the discovery/synthesis of wonder drugs, be it folate, methotrexate, aureomycin, or the antifilarial drug diethylcarbamazine. [1]

Born into a Telugu Brahmin family in Bhimavaram, which today lies in Andhra Pradesh, he had a rocky childhood owing to the death of his close relatives. He was brought up under difficult circumstances. His mother had to sell the little jewellery she owned to provide for his education and he eventually matriculated in his third attempt from Hindu High School, Madras. He has been described as a Brahmin boy who sought his prime motive in religion but found it in science. He married Sheshagiri, daughter of Kasturi Suryanarayana Murthy, and his medical education was funded by his father-in-law.

Being a true patriot, he took Gandhi's call to boycott British goods to heart and even began wearing Khadi surgical gowns, thus angering his teacher, the surgeon M.C. Bradfield at Madras Medical College. Subsequently, he was awarded the lesser LMS certificate in 1921 and not the full MBBS degree. [2]

Death again came knocking at his doorstep in the form of Tropical Sprue, and took away from him his brother Purushottam. He joined as a lecturer of Anatomy and Physiology at Madras Ayurvedic College having failed to enter the Madras Medical Service. Financial assistance from his father-in-law helped him to move to the United States to pursue his education. He earned his Diploma in Tropical Medicine from the Harvard School of Tropical Medicine in 1924, and he then enrolled for Ph.D. in Biochemistry at Harvard Medical School. His son was born at around the same time, but he sadly lost him to erysipelas 8 months later. [3]

Now began the phase of discoveries in his career. He developed a method to estimate phosphorus in body fluids and tissues with Cyrus Fiske, which came to be called the Fiske-Subba Row Method, and was published in Journal of Biological Chemistry in 1925. Then came one of his most important discoveries - that of Phosphocreatinine and adenosine triphosphate (ATP), in the years 1927 and 1929, respectively. He earned his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1930 and continued as a Teaching Fellow at HMS till 1940. [1]

Subba Row then joined Lederle Laboratories, a division of American Cyanamid, as Associate Director of Research. He went on to become the Director of Research in 1942. He focused toward the development of newer antibiotics which could combat more number of diseases.

The research bore fruit. During this period, he discovered four medical molecules, which opened new approaches to the treatment of nutritional and infectious diseases, and also cancer. The uniqueness of these molecules is that even today, decades after their discovery, they are still very much in use, and also are being studied for potential new benefits to mankind. [1]

Aureomycin, the first of tetracycline antibiotics was discovered. This discovery was made following one of the largest known scientific experiment to that date - American soldiers fighting in the World War II all over the world were asked to bring back soil samples from wherever they were, to screen and identify any potential antibiotic in soil fungi. It was the first ever broad spectrum antibiotic to be available, more powerful than either Fleming's penicillin or Waksman's streptomycin. Aureomycin was presented to the world in the year 1948, the year Subba Row died. Tetracycline has continued to save millions of lives then on. He discovered the cell membrane inhibitor polymyxin too. [2]

As Director of Research at Lederle, Subba Row established a project for protecting American soldiers fighting in the Pacific from malaria and filariasis. He developed his next major molecule, Hetrazan (diethylcarbamazine citrate). It was unveiled in the year 1947. More than 65 years from then, even today it remains the drug of choice for filariasis. [1]

Subba Row fathered the identification of folic acid, which was then realized to be the factor deficient in anemia and tropical sprue - the disease responsible for his brother's death. This discovery was the product of his long search of 18 years for this anti-pernicious anemia factor (APAF). Its failure to correct the neurological abnormality in pernicious anemia made him resume his search for the APAF. Hence, it is Subba Row who laid the foundation for the identification of vitamin B12. He toiled for years trying to isolate it from liver, and even succeeded - but failed to recognize it. He found the door, but failed to open it, which eventually others did. [1],[3]

The next big molecule was in the form of identifying aminopterin, a molecule which reversed the action of folic acid, and thus arrested the growth of cancer cells. This was actually the result of continuous research, thanks to Subba Row's ever inquisitive mind. He came upon a report by a clinical collaborator which indicated that chemicals resembling the vitamin arrest the growth of cancer cells.

He directed his chemists to make all possible chemical modifications to the folate molecule, and thus was born aminopterin. He was thus instrumental in bringing about a new approach in cancer therapeutics. Methotrexate, a derivative of aminopterin, is today one of the major drugs used in various types of cancers. [1],[3]

The Boston Herald on April 9, 1948 carried pictures of two boys saved by aminopterin, the ''powerful anti-folic'' synthesized by Subba Row's chemists. Robert Sandler, one of the boys, was shown with Elliot, his identical twin. It was difficult to make out from the picture that Robert had only recently escaped from the jaws of leukemia whereas Elliot had never suffered a day of sickness in all his 3 years. [1],[3]

A son repays his debt … When the dreaded epidemic of plague broke out in parts of Gujarat and Maharashtra in 1994, the drug which helped to contain and limit the spread of the epidemic was doxycycline. It was perhaps a debt he repaid to his motherland almost half a century after his death. Though he got all the support he needed for his research in the US, he always felt an Indian from within. He carried the status of an alien under the Alien Registration Act of 1940, a stigma he always wished to shed. He did what no Indian had done till then on foreign soil, he made some very important and basic discoveries that would go on to further pave way for new research. [3]

He died in his sleep on the night of August 8 th , 1948 at Pearl River, New York at the young age of 53. On his death, The New York Herald-Tribune hailed him as "one of the most eminent medical minds of the century." The Jewish Advocate remembered him as "a giant among pygmies." [3]

Accolades delayed … Subba Row's achievements and discoveries have largely been remained shrouded and obscure. Maybe one of the reasons for this was that he never marketed his work, or himself. He is known to have renounced the credit for the discovery of ATP and phosphocreatinine. A patent attorney was once astounded to learn that he had not taken any of the steps that scientists everywhere consider routine for linking their name to their inventions/discoveries. He never gave press interviews; he never went on lecture tours to make his work popular. [2]

His colleague, George Hitchings, who shared the 1988 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Gertrude Elion, said, ''Some of the nucleotides isolated by Subbarao had to be rediscovered years later by other workers because Fiske, apparently out of jealousy, did not let Subbarao's contributions see the light of the day." A fungus was named Subbaromyces splendens in his honor by American Cyanamid. [2]

Yet, even today in our very own country, Subba Row remains scarcely known. Subba Row's centenary year began in 1994, and the centenary committee succeeded in getting the Government to print a stamp in his honor [Figure 1].{Figure 1}

It is a pity that Subba Row never got the credit he deserved. He has never been given the recognition that others, perhaps of even lesser stature, have got. The Bharat Ratna has been posthumously awarded on many occasions, why not to this great son?

Name or fame were never his priorities. He strived for excellence and created wonders, but chose to keep the name behind those wonders, cryptic. He was during his period, and still remains today, an enigma.


1Bhargava PM. Dr. Yellapragada Subba Row (1895-1948) He Transformed Science; Changed Lives. Indian Acad Clin Med 2001;2:1-2.
2Available from: [Last accessed on 2013 May 19].
3Available from: [Last accessed on 2013 May 20].