Yellapragada Subbarao was born on 12th January 1895 in a poor Telugu 6000 Niyogi Brahmin family in Bhimavaram district in Old Madras Presidency, now in West Godavari district, Andhra Pradesh. He was born as the fourth child amongst seven children to Y. Jagganatham and Y. Venkamma. Though his father worked as a revenue inspector, the family suffered from many hardships of poverty due to the loss of several of his close relatives at a young age. As such, his schooling at Rajahmundry went through a traumatic phase, leading to his completion of matriculation in the third attempt from Hindu High School in Madras. He attained his intermediate education from Presidency College and took admission in Madras Medical College, his education being financed by his friends and Kasturi Suryanarayana Murthy. He later went on to marry Murthy's daughter.
During the freedom movement, Subbarao was so influenced by Mahatma Gandhi that he gave up using British goods and started wearing khadi surgical dress. This displeased his Anglican partial racist professor, M.C. Bradfield who qualified him for a lesser LMS degree instead of a full MBBS degree, although he fared well in all written examinations. He tried to get through Madras Medical service but failed. Hence, he started working as an anatomy lecturer in Dr. Lakshmipathi's Ayurvedic College at Madras. After gaining much interest in Ayurveda, he diverted his interest towards conducting his research in this field. But he was soon on track after he met an American doctor who was touring India for Rockefeller Scholarship. With financial support from his father-in-law Murthy and promise of support from Satyalinga Naicker Charities and Malladi charities, he sailed to Boston in US on October 26, 1922.
Life in America
Subbarao took admission in Harvard School of Tropical Medicine and on completing the diploma; he took up the job of a junior faculty member at Harvard. Living in poverty, he managed to work two or three jobs in shifts. This gained him appreciation from professors and won many scholarships. For the first time, Subbarao gained public attention with the discovery of the estimation of phosphorus in body fluids and tissues, along with Cyrus Fiske. This discovery came to be known as Fiske-Subbarao method, though it was technically named Rapid Calorimetric Method. Next came the accidental discovery of physiology in the body based on Adenosine Triphosphate and Phosphocreatine (ATP), which are the sources of energy in human body. With this, Subbarao's name was listed in the biochemistry textbooks in 1930s for the first time. In the same year, he obtained his PhD degree. He worked at Harvard till 1940 and later joined Lederle Laboratories, a division of American Cyanamid, as the Director of Research, after he was denied the post of a regular faculty at Harvard.
Contributions to Medicine
At Lederle, Subbarao discovered many more antibiotics for a wide range of cures, other than the already discovered penicillin and streptomycin. His research led him to the discovery of polymyxin which is still used in cattle-feed. This led to laying the foundation for the isolation of vitamin B9, the antipernicious anemia factor, based on the work conducted by Lucy Wills in 1945. He applied different inputs given by Dr. Sidney Farber to develop an anti-cancer drug Methotrexate, one of the first cancer chemotherapy agents, which is still used worldwide. He was also credited with the discovery of drug Hetrazen, a cure for filariasis at Lederle. Today, this drug is the most widely used medicine for treating filariasis, including World Health Organization. Under his directorship, Benjamin Duggar gave birth to his discovery of the world's first tetracycline antibiotic, Aureomycin in the same year. This resulted as one of the largest distributed scientific experiments till date with American soldiers being asked to collect soil samples during World War II and deposit them at Lederle Laboratories for anti-bacterial agents from natural soil fungi. Another medicine that he discovered was Isonicotinic acid Hydrazide, an effective cure for tuberculosis.
With so many discoveries and developments to his credit, Subbarao never marketed his work and hence, was always left behind in terms of work recognition and appreciation. He always sat in the audience and had to be pushed to the stage by a colleague or a collaborator to take a bow as each of his researches was revealed to the public. Further, he was seen giving interviews to the press or visiting nations on lecture tours. When his colleague George Hitchings won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, along with Gertrude Elion, in 1988, he stated that some of the works initiated by Subbarao had to be rediscovered for the simple reason that his partner Fiske did not allow his contributions earn name and fame, probably out of jealousy. American Cyanamid honored Subbarao by naming a new fungus under his name "Subbaromyces splendens".
On being persuaded by his family, Subbarao was married to his distant cousin Seshagiri, daughter of Kasturi Suryanarayana Murthy, on May 10, 1919. She belonged to Anaparthi vllage in East Godavari district of Andhra Pradesh. After the couple went to America, his wife gave birth to a son in a couple months. However, the son died at nine months due to the dreadful disease "Sappi".
Yellapragada Subbarao spent most of his career life in America without a green card. Thus, he remained an alien in America, although he performed several important medical researches during World War II. But he had always hoped of shedding the stigma of being an alien amidst people with whom he spent over 25 years. With this, he filed the "Declaration of Intention" to get the ruling of the Immigration and Naturalization Service that he has been legally admitted to United States. Despite getting the American citizenship, Subbarao was an Indian at heart and died as an Indian. On his death on August 9, 1948 in USA due to a massive heart attack, numerous obituaries appeared in Science, New York Times, New York Herald-Tribune, and several other newspapers and journals across the world in honor of this distinguished scientist. He was bestowed upon with "one of the most eminent medical minds of the Century" by Herald-Tribune.