Yellapragada Subbarow (12 January 1895 – 8 August 1948) was an Indian biochemist who discovered the function of adenosine triphosphate as an energy source in the cell, and developed methotrexate for the treatment of cancer. Most of his career was spent in the United States. Despite his isolation of ATP, Subbarow was denied tenure at Harvardthough he would lead some of America’s most important medical research during World War II. Subbarow died in the United States. Subbarow is also credited with the first synthesis of the chemical compounds folic acid and methotrexate.
Subbarow’s colleague, George Hitchings said, “Some of the nucleotides isolated by Subbarow had to be rediscovered years later by other workers because Fiske, apparently out of jealousy, did not let Subbarow’s contributions see the light of the day.”A fungusgenus was named Subbaromyces in his honor. Writing in the April 1950 issue of Argosy, Doron K. Antrim observed, “You’ve probably never heard of Dr. Yellapragada Subbarow. Yet because he lived you may be alive and are well today. Because he lived you may live longer.”
Early life and education
He was born in Bhimavaram, Madras Presidency, now in West Godavari District, Andhra Pradesh in India. He passed through a traumatic period in his schooling at Rajahmundry (due to the premature death of close relatives by disease) and eventually matriculated in his third attempt from the Hindu High School, Madras. He passed the Intermediate Examination from the Presidency College and entered the Madras Medical College where his education was supported by friends and Kasturi Suryanarayana Murthy, whose daughter he later married.
Following Gandhi’s call to boycott British goods he started wearing khadi surgical dress; this incurred the displeasure of M. C. Bradfield, his surgery professor. Consequently, though he did well in his written papers, he was awarded the lesser LMS certificate and not a full MBBS degree. Subbarow tried to enter the Madras Medical Service without success. He then took up a job as Lecturer in Anatomy at Dr. Lakshmipathi’s Ayurvedic College at Madras. He was fascinated by the healing powers of Ayurvedic medicines and began to engage in research to put Ayurveda on a modern footing. The promise of support from Malladi Satyalingam Naicker Charities in Kakinada, and financial assistance raised by his father-in-law, enabled Subbarow to proceed to the U.S. He arrived inBoston on 26 October 1922.
Career in United States
After earning a diploma from the Harvard Medical School he joined Harvard as a junior faculty member. With Cyrus Fiske, he developed a method for the estimation ofphosphorus in body fluids and tissues. He discovered the role of phosphocreatine and adenosine triphosphate (ATP) in muscular activity, which earned him an entry into biochemistry textbooks in the 1930s. He obtained his Ph.D. degree the same year. He joined Lederle Laboratories, a division of American Cyanamid (now a division of Wyethwhich is owned by Pfizer), after he was denied a regular faculty position at Harvard. At Lederle, he developed a method to synthesize folic acid, Vitamin B9, based on work byLucy Wills to isolate folic acid as a protective agent against anemia. After his work on folic acid and with considerable input from Dr. Sidney Farber, he developed the important anti-cancer drug methotrexate – one of the very first cancer chemotherapy agents and still in widespread clinical use. Subbarow also discovered the basis for hetrazanwhich was used by the World health Organization against filariasis. Under Subbarow, Benjamin Duggar made his discovery of the world’s first tetracycline antibiotic,aureomycin, in 1945. This discovery was made as a result of the largest distributed scientific experiment ever performed to that date, when American soldiers who had fought all over the world were instructed at the end of WWII to collect soil samples from wherever they were, and bring the samples back for screening at Lederle Laboratories for possible anti-bacterial agents produced by natural soil fungi.