Feature

Ex–hospital porter a neglected giant of cancer research


 

We have a half-forgotten Indian immigrant to thank – a hospital night porter turned biochemist –for revolutionizing treatment of leukemia, the once deadly childhood scourge that is still the most common pediatric cancer.

Dr. Yellapragada SubbaRow has been called the “father of chemotherapy” for developing methotrexate, a powerful, inexpensive therapy for leukemia and other diseases, and he is celebrated for additional scientific achievements. Yet Dr. SubbaRow’s life was marked more by struggle than glory.

1995 Indian stamp; photo in public domain

Dr. Yellapragada SubbaRow

Born poor in southeastern India, he nearly succumbed to a tropical disease that killed two older brothers, and he didn’t focus on schoolwork until his father died. Later, prejudice dogged his years as an immigrant to the United States, and a blood clot took his life at the age of 53.

Scientifically, however, Dr. SubbaRow (pronounced sue-buh-rao) triumphed, despite mammoth challenges and a lack of recognition that persists to this day. National Cancer Research Month is a fitting time to look back on his extraordinary life and work and pay tribute to his accomplishments.

‘Yella,’ folic acid, and a paradigm shift

No one appreciates Dr. SubbaRow more than a cadre of Indian-born physicians who have kept his legacy alive in journal articles, presentations, and a Pulitzer Prize-winning book. Among them is author and oncologist Siddhartha Mukherjee, MD, who chronicled Dr. SubbaRow’s achievements in his New York Times No. 1 bestseller, “The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer.”

As Dr. Mukherjee wrote, Dr. SubbaRow was a “pioneer in many ways, a physician turned cellular physiologist, a chemist who had accidentally wandered into biology.” (Per Indian tradition, SubbaRow is the doctor’s first name, and Yellapragada is his surname, but medical literature uses SubbaRow as his cognomen, with some variations in spelling. Dr. Mukherjee wrote that his friends called him “Yella.”)

Dr. SubbaRow came to the United States in 1923, after enduring a difficult childhood and young adulthood. He’d survived bouts of religious fervor, childhood rebellion (including a bid to run away from home and become a banana trader), and a failed arranged marriage. His wife bore him a child who died in infancy. He left it all behind.

In Boston, medical officials rejected his degree. Broke, he worked for a time as a night porter at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, changing sheets and cleaning urinals. To a poor but proud high-caste Indian Brahmin, the culture shock of carrying out these tasks must have been especially jarring.

Dr. SubbaRow went on to earn a diploma from Harvard Medical School, also in Boston, and became a junior faculty member. As a foreigner, Dr. Mukherjee wrote, Dr. SubbaRow was a “reclusive, nocturnal, heavily accented vegetarian,” so different from his colleagues that advancement seemed impossible. Despite his pioneering biochemistry work, Harvard later declined to offer Dr. SubbaRow a tenured faculty position.

By the early 1940s, he took a job at an upstate New York pharmaceutical company called Lederle Labs (later purchased by Pfizer). At Lederle, Dr. SubbaRow strove to synthesize the vitamin known as folic acid. He ended up creating a kind of antivitamin, a lookalike that acted like folic acid but only succeeded in gumming up the works in receptors. But what good would it do to stop the body from absorbing folic acid? Plenty, it turned out.

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