The Telugus

Yellamycin and Subamycin

Photo Credit- Mohit.R. Juturu

The Telugu World Column No # 20


There are writers, artistes, sports stars and scientists of national level among the Telugu people, not just film actors and politicians. As a journalist, I started with eminent journalists and wrote about great ones like Sir C. Y. Chintamani, K. Ishwar Dutt and the Kotamraju brothers Rama Rao and Punnaiah.

Manikonda Chalapathi Rao succeeded Rama Rao as the editor of National Herald, Luknow and launched its Delhi edition. He was just editor, but a Telugu brought into English journalism by me, the late K.V.S. Rama Sarma, was later its Editor-in-Chief. Duvvuri Subba Rao was News Editor of The Motherland daily and M. Venugopal Rao of Patriot daily in the 60s.

Chalapathi Rao was treated badly and insulted by the management in his last days at the Herald whose building on Bahadurshah Zafar Maarg in Delhi is the subject of a court case in which Rahul Gandhi and his mother Sonia were arrested and given bail.  

When I met Rao in his office in 1967 I was shocked. Following throat cancer his pharynx was removed and his metallic voice came from a mechanical device.  He was said to be the best writer of English in journalism then, but when what he wrote was rewritten by a sub-editor (not knowing he wrote it), he insisted that the rewritten version, not his own, be published as he considered that sub-editor was supreme and had the last word.

Chalapathi Rao was a bachelor and lived alone in Kakanagar government quarters. A daily morning walker, he used to stop at a roadside stall for his morning cup of tea. One day in 1983 he sat at the tea stall and died of a heart attack. The stall owner did not even know his name and thought of him as a ‘Madrasi who used to have tea here daily.’ Thus the body of one of the greatest Telugu journalists lay unclaimed and unknown on the roadside in Delhi. 

One hopes it is not symbolic.

Telugu people had distinguished themselves in many fields other than politics, though participation in the freedom struggle and the movement for a Telugu state separate from Madras Presidency decades before Independence, got them more fame as politicians at national level than any other field — excerpt cinema.

There were many Telugu politicians who distinguished themselves all over the country – like Neelam Sanjiva Reddy, Varahagiri Venkata Giri, P,V. Natasimha Rao, Damodaram Sanjivayya, Tanguturi Prakasham, Madubhashi Anantashayanam Ayyangaar, Pingali Venkayya, Patttabhi Seetaramaiah, Kasu Brahmananda Reddy, Durgabai Deshmukh Chandra Tajeswara Rai of CPI, Yechuri Setaram  of CPM, N.G. Ranga  of Swatantra Party’s and Socialist Godey Murahari. Now BJP’s Venkaiah Naidu is  Vice President.

But less in news though more in merit are many scientists, sports persons, artistes and writers from the Telugu states who achieved fame but are now forgotten. Very few even in the Telugu states know that millions of people all over the world owe their lives to a Telugu biochemist, Yallapragada Subbarow born in Bhimavaram, West Godavari district of Andhra. This village boy who failed in matriculation twice, studied in Kakinada and Rajamahendravaram (then called Rajahmundry by the British) and could not get an MBBS degree in Madras as he accepted Gandhiji’s call to wear handspun Khadi.  

He married the daughter of Kasturi Suryanarayana Murthy who financed his medical studies at Madras, where he was discriminated against for being a nationalist.  He never lived with his wife, who stayed in India when, with financial aid of Murthy and others he went to Boston, USA to study medicine. Due to racism he failed to get a faculty position he sought at Harvard. So he joined Lederle Laboratories (now Pfizer) as a research scientist. Pfizer reportedly named two antibiotics Yellamycin and Subamycin to honour him, till new and better ones replaced them. This Telugu scientist had revolutionized the field of medicine, but finds no place in Indian history books. There is said to be a statue of his somewhere in Andhra but I could not locate it.

Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia on Internet says: Yellapragada Subbarow (12 Jan. 1895 – 8 Aug.1948), was a pioneering Indian biochemist who discovered  adenosine  triphosphate  (ATP) as an energy source in the cell, developed cancer treatment drug methotrexate and discovered broad spectrum of antibiotics including tetracycline and chlortetracycline. His elder brother and younger brother had both died due to tropical sprue in the span of 8 days and subsequently he found a way to make folic acid as a cure for this ailment. He discovered methotrexate, a chemotherapy drug still used for rheumatoid arthritis, and diethyl/carbamazine (DEC), the only drug to treat filariasis. Most of his career was spent in the US. Subbarow led the most important US medical research during World War II. He is also credited with the first synthesis of the chemical compounds folic acid and methotrexate. Cyrus H. Fiske, his contemporary, suppressed and destroyed many of his important works out of envy. A colleague, George Hitching admitted, “Some of the nucleotides isolated by Subbarao had to be rediscovered years later by others because Fiske, apparently out of jealousy, did not let Subbarow’s contributions see the light of the day.”  In his honor a fungus genus has been named Subbaromyces. As a lecturer in an Ayurvedic college in Madras, he was greatly impressed by Ayurveda and sought to put it on a more scientific footing. 

Many Telugus are in US science laboratories, but remain unknown to Telugu people.

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