In 1969, my father traveled alone from India to Boston so that he could enroll in the master’s program in geophysics at MIT.
I don’t know whether he flew or came by boat, so when I try to picture him setting foot in America for the first time, I don’t know what to imagine. I’ve tried to find the photographic evidence, but there aren’t any pictures of the fifteen years he spent in this country before he married my mother. Maybe he just threw out the tattered albums when we were moving between houses, but it’s more likely that he never took any photos at all. He’s never been a sentimental man.
I also don’t know why he chose to come in the first place. He has never had any great fascination with money; despite his making a good living, we lived in shabby rentals for most of my childhood, and my mother shopped for us from department store discount racks. I never felt that professional success was what he was after either. He never advanced past middle management, and except for one late-night discussion in which he made clear that he felt there was a glass ceiling for people with our skin color, I never heard one word of frustration from him about work. Maybe it was to help his family – along with his brother who came to Kansas State University earlier in the 1960s, he supported his parents in India for years with the money he earned. When trying to make us feel guilty about our second-generation lassitude, which is often, he tells us of how at MIT he had to work all hours of the night in the cafeteria and library while keeping up a full courseload, so maybe we need to be a little more appreciative that he helped with the room and board during our own time in college.
Yet to know my father is to understand nothing. He’s retired now and sits for most of the day in muttered conversation with various cable television programs, consumed with the crimes of Donald Trump. I often sit with him, but both of us tend towards monologue rather than conversation. There are questions to ask, but I’ve never asked them. Instead we sit watching television until he switches it off to go to bed before I’ve even eaten dinner.
* * *
I am Indian and a clinical fellow in medical oncology, yet I only learned that the crucial chemotherapy drug methotrexate was discovered by the forgotten Indian scientist Dr. Yellapragada Subbarow while reading Siddhartha Mukherjee’s popular history of cancer The Emperor of all Maladies. I was immediately fascinated by the idea of an Indian man working in isolation at a Boston laboratory in the 1920s and 30s, three decades before my father arrived, and fifty years before Indian immigration to America became commonplace.
I was soon spending hours online searching for fragments of his biography in obscure medical journals and long-neglected websites. Unsatisfied, unable to construct a coherent narrative, I eventually tracked down a copy of journalist SPK Gupta’s long out of print 1987 biography In Quest of Panacea and learned that in addition to working on methotrexate, Subbarow had helped discover tetracycline antibiotics, a method to synthesize the vitamin folic acid, and the vital intracellular power source ATP. Though I was disappointed to find out he’d never won a single major scientific award for any of this work, let alone a Nobel Prize, what broke my heart was discovering he’d suddenly died of a heart attack at age 53, thousands of miles away from his family, whom he’d never been able to return and visit decades after his initial emigration to Boston in 1922. He had wired back thousands of dollars over the years, though. As my father knew well, duty could not be so easily left behind in the old country.
I wanted to know why Subbarow had come to America, and I wanted to know why he had chosen to stay, remaining in total isolation from everything he had once known. I re-started Gupta’s biography with an eye for the details. Names, places, dates. I moved the facts this way, then that, drawn ever deeper into his lost world, convinced that the key to the central mysteries of his life remained hidden somewhere in those words.
Subbarow was born in 1895 near the city of Madras in southern India. Though of the highest Brahmin caste, his family was desperately poor, his father only able to work intermittently as a low-level government functionary due to chronic health problems. His mother, increasingly disappointed in her feckless husband as the years passed, placed more and more pressure to succeed on Subbarow and his siblings. Yet he remained an aimless student, wrapped up in dreams of escape. As a teenager, he tried to run away to the faraway holy city of Varanasi, but he was caught soon after leaving home and had to unceremoniously return to the village with his mother.
It was not long before his father had to quit his job permanently, sending the family further into poverty and deepening Subbarow’s preoccupations. Spurning his mother’s desire for academic and material success, he instead nursed a growing fascination with nationalist philosophy and romantic poetry, earning only average marks in school. Soon before his final examinations, his father suddenly died; unmoored, he failed twice before finally passing on his third attempt and graduating with the rest of his class.
In time, he shunned further formal schooling, choosing instead to become a novice monk at the nearby Ramakrishna Mission. Yet his mother, still holding out hope for riches and prestige, declined to give him the permission required for him to continue. Disappointed, Subbarow eventually returned home, but not before the monks convinced him that the study of medicine might represent a compromise between serving others and still making a respectable living. He soon enrolled at the nearby Madras Medical College.
Though schoolwork began to take up much of his time, Subbarow hadn’t lost his earlier fascination with the burgeoning Indian independence movement. When Gandhi demanded Indians become more self-sufficient in all things, including food and clothing, Subbarow heeded the call, wearing homespun khadi to the hospital rather than the usual starched uniform. His British professor immediately assigned him a failing grade in the rotation, and Subbarow thus graduated not with an MBBS, but the lesser LMS certification. No hospital would hire him as part of their clinical faculty, and he was reduced to working as an anatomy instructor at a local Ayurvedic medical school, just scraping by. At that time, his fortunes lower than ever, two of his older brothers died of tropical sprue, an acute infectious disease of the small bowel that at the time had no known cause or treatment. With the loss of their income, money at home grew even tighter.
While Subbarow still idealized a monastic existence, marriage now seemed to be the only way to ease the mounting financial pressure. Though his cupboard was bare, he remained of a high caste family with a long reputation in the area, and it was not long before a wealthy farmer visited, seeking a match for one of his daughters. After some discussion, Subbarow reluctantly agreed to the union under the condition he could marry his grand-daughter Seshagiri instead of one of his daughters. She was much younger, hardly a teenager, and he felt she would not disturb his growing focus on medical science, which he had found to be pure and clean and hard, something that, like religious truth, could be worked towards like a bright light on a distant mountain.
To all outward appearances, Subbarow’s marriage was the final piece in the trinity of education, job, and wife with which, as my mother says, a man can be “set.” Yet it was not enough, no cure for his increasingly restless heart. Many years later, alone in Boston completing his post-graduate studies at Harvard, Subbarow would write in a letter back to his far-away family, “My path has not been one of roses…unfortunately, contentment has not been made my goal, nor do I think will it ever.”
* * *
My father’s beginnings were obscure to me. Infrequent stories of a rough-and-tumble childhood were all I had—closed fist beatings from the Irish monks at his Catholic school, frequent beltings from his father, broken fingers from his cricket games. Whenever he caught me trying to leave the table before finishing my dinner, he’d make a cutting remark on how he’d had to shovel down his own dinners growing up—only fast eaters got seconds in a family as big as his. His siblings back in India would tell me he was an “all-rounder”—good at studies, sports, and socializing—though no amount of squinting could bring that figure into focus for me now, so many years later. Even so, he’d occasionally display some flash of that mind that had once earned him passage to America, and I’d be startled back into understanding some fragment of what he once was.
I wondered endlessly about how he lived after he got here. Once, after finding some rolling papers in my backpack the summer after college, he told me how he’d gone to a party in an apartment back in his own school days, and how the host had told him there were some edibles on the coffee table—“I told her I would eat them later…but I never did.” Another time, he told me how he’d crammed into a sedan with four other Indians and driven to an Al Green concert in central Boston. He may as well have told me they’d gone to the moon.
After graduating, he spent the next decade working for several private oil and gas companies in the roller-coaster energy industry of 1970s Houston. The jobs came and went, the small outfits quickly going bust, and he was continually interviewing for new positions, sweating through his suit in the hot summer sun.
The transition from this bare-bones existence to a settled-down life in Ponca City, Oklahoma, married to my mother, always seemed abrupt to me, like two movie scenes roughly edited together with no apparent logic. It wasn’t long before my sister and I came along, and my father was drawn into a small town, middle-class American life he may never have imagined growing up how he did back in India.
* * *
The years Subbarow spent working at the Ayurvedic college were difficult. There was no equipment at the college for the serious research he wanted to do, let alone significant funding. The other faculty members he worked with lacked his ambition. And while he preferred not to think of his own finances, the low pay created a continued strain that his in-laws could not fully relieve. He was left consoling his wife that everything would change once he got a valuable degree from America.
For while most Indian men of ambition in the pre-independence years aimed for the ivy-covered colleges of Oxford or Cambridge, the fervently anti-colonial Subbarow, who’d once paid a heavy price for his political views, remained with conflicting emotions regarding most things English. It wasn’t long before he was telling anyone who’d listen that his new plan was to move to America and continue his studies there. He spoke with the American consul in Madras about what educational opportunities might be available to him and was referred to Dr. John Kendrick, a physician conducting an anti-hookworm campaign in the country. Dr. Kendrick encouraged him to apply to the Tropical Medicine Program at Harvard University and insisted that they would have no issue accepting as a prerequisite his LMS certificate from an Indian medical program. A few weeks after his initial letter of inquiry, he received a one-sentence cable from Harvard offering him admittance to the fall 1921 term.
While this proved excellent news, he still had no way of reaching Boston. He had no money to spare, and Harvard insisted that the department could not offer any assistance. While a local charity offered scholarships for foreign study, his recently deceased brother had been his only contact there, and he thought he no longer had any chance at that money. As a last resort, having deferred his admission to the following year, he went to his father-in-law, who agreed to loan him the few rupees he needed for the steamer fare to Boston, hoping that his time there would help him earn the qualifications to build a more successful life back in India. Now, all he had to do was break the news to his teenage wife.
Decades later, interviewed by Mr. Gupta for her husband’s biography, Seshagiri says she gave her “wholehearted consent” for him to travel to Boston for “two years or three.” Yet, Subbarow likely considered the discussion a formality, so drawn was he to the pursuit of serious science. Besides, his wife was still only fifteen years old, though in the culture of that time and place, her word would not have carried much weight even if she had been older. He later admitted he did not even tell her he was leaving on the day his steamer was due to depart India, because he did not have the heart to say so.
He wrote terse letters to her from each stop along the arduous journey — Aden, Port Said, London. He was surprised she didn’t respond, his tone growing more irritated with each attempt, insisting it “was not fair to ask another to write when you do not write [yourself].” He was the only vegetarian on board the ship and lived on “eggs, boiled potatoes, peas, cabbages, coffee, and bread” while others dined on “ten dishes of different varieties of flesh.” I imagined how he may have lain in his bunk, unsatisfied after yet another dinner of boiled vegetables, dreaming instead of his favorite foods – mango cake, coconut chutney, and yogurt.
Upon landing in Boston, he took a room in a run-down bunkhouse at 12 Haviland Street. Even with the low rent there, his funds quickly ran dry; after paying his first semester’s tuition, he hardly had anything to live on. Dr. Richard Strong, chair of the department, could not find him a position as a teaching assistant or laboratory technician at the university. The Massachusetts Medical Board would not give him a medical license based on his LMS certification, so he was unable to earn money practicing medicine on the side. Finally, about to go broke, he found a part-time job as a night janitor at the Brigham Hospital emptying bedpans.
He finally received an angry note from his wife asking him when he would return to India. In his response, he chided her “arrogant letter,” saying that he did not know “what to write if asked when I would return the moment I come here.” In a later reply, he told his wife that “those who are thoughtful hide their own difficulties and write to keep the other happy.” Yet they made little effort, the letters becoming more and more infrequent as the months passed until they hardly wrote each other at all. She must have been under terrible stress. With the loss of Subbarow’s income, the family’s financial situation was more difficult than ever, and in a culture where the position of a wife depended solely on her relationship with her husband, it likely was not long before village gossip turned to what she might have done to have driven him so far away.
Subbarow, too, struggled to adapt to his new reality. The 1920 U.S. Census found there to be 2,507 people of Indian descent living in the entire country, and there could not have been any places in the Boston of that time to buy spice packets, eat palak paneer, or go to a temple. He was one of three Indians enrolled in any program at the medical school. There was nothing of his home country in the Boston papers, and he wrote his in-laws hungrily for updates on the Indian elections and other local news. He told them how the Americans he met obsessed over India’s “uncivilized” aspects – child marriage, widow suicides, dirt, pollution, and disease — while remaining wholly ignorant of its long traditions of religion, learning, and culture.
With little to interest him outside of school, he maintained a punishing schedule, attending class from 8 to 5:30, working at his job until ten, then afterwards going to the laboratory to do research until one in the morning. He slept only six hours a night. He had no leisure time. Despite this, he wrote that “the work is interesting and I am quite happy.”
As Boston descended into winter, Subbarow began to spend every waking moment in the lab, working with associate professor Dr. Cyrus Fiske on a new method to measure the amount of inorganic phosphorus in biologic tissue. He admonished his wife, “It is not good to ask in every letter when I will be back. I will come as early as possible…I do not want to write anything more.” The work now was all that mattered, the only way to carve out a space in that city and that country which seemed to have no other use for him.
He finished his diploma in tropical medicine, but he did not return to India, pushing his departure date steadily backwards with each letter. First a few months, soon a whole year. He made continuous entreaties to his family to send more money, to support him as best they could. The work went past midnight every night. He began chain-smoking cigarettes. Finally, a breakthrough – the figures checked out, the results were reproducible. He presented his work at the 1924 meeting of the American Society of Biological Chemists as the “Fiske-Subbarow Method” — he had done the work, but his supervisor got first billing. He conveyed the success back home, but implored them: “Please do not publicize this… publicity is as bad as anything. It is only for your information to show that I am not wasting my time, even one hour a day.” The method, with modifications, is still used in laboratories today.
Things eased up at Harvard. While we cannot know how much of their initial unwillingness to fund Subbarow’s work or find him employment more suitable for his rank was a product of the racism of the time, his growing academic success was inarguable. He was soon accepted as a full graduate student in the Ph.D. program in biochemistry, and his department chair quickly found him a position in the library with minimal responsibilities. He was staying in Boston.
* * *
Salvation through science has been the mantra of most Indian families trying to put down roots in this country. We, like Subbarow, view it as pure and clean and hard. Science is described in the language of numbers, which can be trusted, like figures in a bank account ledger, like cold digits on a computer display. Science is based in logic, producing the same results, we believe, regardless of any influence from emotion or bias. And science is respected. Most of all, science is respected.
I’ve never seen him read a journal on geophysics or search for new research developments online, but my father has always called himself a scientist. While I half-heartedly worked in research laboratories to buff up my resume for medical school, he’d shake his head and say that doing real science was a twenty-four hour a day job. He’s still proud of the work he put into earning that master’s degree all those years ago, and though I’ve never seen it, I imagine it’s printed on fine paper, hidden away in a bank lockbox somewhere.
From an early age, my father determined my sister and I would also have lives in science. The only grades he cared about on my report card were those in chemistry, physics, and mathematics. We spent countless weekend mornings after the cartoons working our way through algebra textbooks he bought secondhand. He’d check our work, breath smelling of coffee, wrenching the pencil away from us to show us what we had done wrong here, and here, and there.
Science was an ideal, my father thought. If you worked hard enough at it, the results would show. The results would lead to credentials and a steady job. Those respected letters — B.S., M.D., Ph.D. — could then be printed on our business cards or frosted on the glass of our office doors; if we worked hard enough, science could change our very names. My teacher may not have been able to pronounce my name on the daily roll call, but there would be no mistaking an M.D. A title could not be ignored, no matter what our skin color, no matter where we came from.
* * *
The years passed, and Subbarow worked towards his own title. He used the method he’d devised to determine phosphorus content in muscle tissue and focused especially on whether phosphorus-containing compounds were the key power source driving muscular contraction. Across the Atlantic, similar work was being done in Nobel Prize winner Otto Meyerhof’s Berlin laboratory by chemist Karl Lohmann. By mid-1929, both teams converged on the chemical structure of ATP, the main energy source used by all cells in the body. Lohmann submitted his manuscript for publication first, and presented his work in August at the Physiological Conference held in Boston. Fiske was incensed when he heard the presentation, telling his friends he’d shared some of his work with Meyerhof a few months earlier, and that the Germans’ discovery was based in part what he and Subbarow had done in their lab. Nonetheless, Lohmann is typically given full credit for the landmark discovery, though as Koscak Maruyama notes in the Journal of the History of Biology, both teams independently determined the chemical structure and “the work of Fiske and Subbarow has not always received its due.”
Despite the near miss, Subbarow earned his Ph.D. that year on the strength of his continued research. In a letter home, he wrote his wife that Boston was “no good city,” adding that despite their long separation, it was not necessary for her to visit. He continued, writing that he could not come back to India as there was no job there for someone with his qualifications and “no money [there] for even food.” The truth was, aside from a brief flirtation with a position in Calcutta, which he turned down due to the British administration’s unwillingness to guarantee him, an Indian, full autonomy, he never showed any serious desire to come home. He knew that the cutting edge of science remained in the West. He knew that was where he had to be, telling his father-in-law, “I love my science more than anything in the world.” By 1933, he’d stopped writing to his wife and family altogether.
In the meantime, Subbarow’s academic reputation continued to grow. In fact, his colleagues were beginning to whisper that he had been the real brains all along behind the groundbreaking work in the Fiske laboratory. When Fiske’s name came up for promotion, the now widespread rumors of Subbarow’s primacy significantly damaged his chances. Hearing this, Subbarow spontaneously wrote a short letter to the university president, giving all the credit for the Fiske-Subbarow method and the discovery of ATP to his boss, downplaying his own contribution as “merely an extra pair of hands.” Soon, Fiske was made chair of the department. The administration, now confirmed in their belief that Subbarow was just a technician, would not promote him to the faculty. With his Indian instinct for self-effacement, he had irreparably sabotaged his own career.
* * *
People insist it must have been difficult for me to grow up in small-town Oklahoma as an Indian kid with a weird name who didn’t go to church and even worse, didn’t eat meat. I want to agree with them, too. There was a time I’d almost convinced myself that I must have suppressed all memory of having been relentlessly bullied in grade school, but the few other Indian kids I went to school with, all children of petroleum engineers too, tell me that it really didn’t happen. No one ever yelled at us to go back where we came from, but even if they had, we wouldn’t have been able to go anyplace other than the orange brick rental on Wayside Dr. That was the only home we had.
We made our own wonderful little world, the ten or so families marooned together way out there on the plains. We were from all parts of India, north, south, east, and west, and every few years we were even joined by a Muslim family. On weekends, our mothers would drag us to Hindi classes they taught, and we’d do a few prayers afterwards, though we never understood the words. There were play dates and swim lessons. Once a month, one of the families would have a dinner party and all of us would cram into a few rooms, the mothers cooking, the fathers talking about stocks, and the kids playing Super Nintendo until the gulab jamun was served for dessert. I remember driving home after one such party and listening to my father grumble in the car about how one of the others kept bringing up Indian politics in the discussion — “Arey, forget India, this is our home now!”
Despite my father’s declarations, he remained a man apart. In elementary school, I remember him angrily telling my sister and me how they wouldn’t allow him to have dinner in the local Elks club. We laughed — “Dad, you can’t go there unless you’re a member!” — but to this day he remains convinced that they would never let a man like him in no matter what credentials he had.
He never invited over one of the other dads to watch football on Saturday afternoons. He never went to the bar for an after-work happy hour. He never even sent blue air-mail envelopes back to family in India, separated as they were by thousands of miles and secret feuds spanning years.
Instead, he was devoted only to my sister and me. He would leave work early on weekday afternoons to watch spelling bees at other schools, so he would know what words we should practice before our own. He spent hours researching the college application process and created laminated binders with detailed checklists on what we would have to do to get into certain schools. Every night, we sat together as a family and read verses from the Bhagavad Gita; my father painstakingly explained each word as we stared into the distance.
Certain winter evenings, he soaked cupfuls of almonds in warm water and peeled them by hand before feeding them to me one by one as I watched the Chicago Bulls on WGN.
* * *
As the 1930s pressed on, Subbarow tentatively grew into his success. The years of living on shredded wheat were now over. He told a friend about the first time he ate meat — it “tasted terrible, like soft shoe leather, and he had felt bad about eating something that was once alive” but “gradually he had acquired a taste for Western food and well-done meats.” Dr. Fiske and Dr. Otto Folin, the chair of biochemistry, continued their warm mentorship of his scientific career, impressed at his inexhaustible work ethic. He also began to develop friendships with other graduate students and went on occasional trips with them sailing or exploring elsewhere in New England.
In many ways, however, Subbarow remained an outsider, barred from genteel Harvard society. Dr. Joseph C. Aub, later chair of medicine at the medical school, admitted that he “had not had him to my house or looked after him socially…one did not do that in those days.” During lunch, he wasn’t invited to join the faculty in their dining room and was usually found eating a sandwich in the basement store-room surrounded by empty boxes. When two women were sexually assaulted in his apartment building, the police immediately suspected him, a single, dark-skinned man of foreign origins. He was arrested, but after one of the longest nights of his life, he was released the next day on lack of evidence. After this scare, remaining in America only on a student visa, he remained forever terrified of being sent back to India following any minor infraction.
Years after his contemporaries had been promoted, Subbarow remained an adjunct faculty member without full-time paid staff, graduate student assistants, or updated laboratory facilities. After the race for ATP ended, he continued to work with part-time help from medical students, developing a special interest in the search for vitamins. When they isolated a substance which seemed to cure pellagra, a condition of malnourishment, he had to send it to investigators at Duke University for full animal testing he couldn’t do on his own. The teams at Duke were not well-coordinated, so when the substance didn’t work on rat or chick pellagra, they tabled further studies. However, soon after, Conrad Elvehjem, a University of Wisconsin biochemist, independently isolated the identical substance. When he discussed his findings with Subbarow, he felt the substance, called niacin, should be tested on dogs as well as chicks and rats, which may have been suffering from altogether distinct diseases. Not only did niacin cure Elvehjem’s dogs, further clinical trials demonstrated its effectiveness in human patients. In 1937, Elvehjem published a paper announcing the discovery in the Journal of the American Chemical Society. Subbarow’s name was not among the listed authors.
He entered a half decade of lethargy. Perhaps this was all that there was, toiling in obscurity, beaten continually by those allowed money, equipment, and manpower. For years, he had refused overtures from the pharmaceutical industry, viewing their commercially driven research as being divorced from the pure science that had always been his pursuit. Yet, friends and former colleagues continued to urge him to leave Harvard; even if he had lost some of his self-confidence, they still saw the possibilities contained in his mind.
Finally, in 1943, he accepted a job as director of research at Lederle Laboratories in upstate New York. When they presented their salary offer, he asked for half of the proposed amount, so that a new research building could be built for him. He also stated that he had “no intention of applying to any patents,” prompting a company attorney to note while “as a chemist he is a genius, as a businessman he is poor.”
At Lederle, Subbarow finally had the resources to match his ambition. He threw himself further into vitamin research, and over the next few years his team developed processes to commercially manufacture calcium pantothenate, pyridoxine, niacin, thiamine, biotin, and riboflavin. While none of this work was truly novel, consisting mainly of modifying known procedures to turn out large amounts of previously discovered substances, these projects allowed him to develop his managerial style.
He demanded from his young scientists what he had given his whole working life, asking them to come in on weekends and calling them at all hours with ideas to move projects forward. He had no tolerance for indifference or pretension, and had a short temper when confronted with either in his employees. He even discouraged them from marrying and having children, as he felt family would distract from an absolute commitment to science. While he didn’t disapprove of socializing after work, he almost always declined the invitations he was offered, preferring to keep somewhat apart.
The junior researchers were especially awed by their boss’ photographic memory; no matter what problem they took him, he would have the relevant equations, chemical structures, and laboratory protocols in his head, ready to examine. They knew that even if they were stumped, he would always have some fresh insight to push forward a solution. Most of all, they knew that whatever time he demanded of them, he always worked longer and harder. A deep respect developed, and years later, one after another of his employees would admit they did the best work of their lives under his direction.
Many began to view him as a father figure, hanging onto his every dispensation and admonition. It was not long before the employees of the laboratory, all white, mainly male, were calling themselves “Subbarow’s Boys.”
Over a period of six years, the boys racked up numerous successes. His team was the first to devise a method to synthesize the vitamin folic acid. In 1944, they developed Hetrazan, the first effective treatment of filariasis, which causes elephantiasis of the lower limbs and genitals in millions of people, mainly in tropical countries. Later in the decade, his antibiotic program generated polymyxin, the first effective treatment against the class of bacteria called Gram negatives, and aureomycin, the first “broad spectrum” antibiotic. In the years prior to his death, Subbarow collaborated with Dr. Sidney Farber to develop methotrexate, the first effective chemotherapy against childhood leukemia.
Today, folic acid is prescribed to every expectant mother to reduce the rate of neurologic birth defects. Hetrazan remains widely used in the developing world and is still included on the list of medications the WHO recommends as essential for public health. Aureomycin spawned a class of antibiotics called the tetracyclines still used for everything from soft tissue infections to malaria prophylaxis. Methotrexate, in addition to its key role in treating leukemia, is incorporated in treatment protocols for everything from sarcoma to certain lymphomas to autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis.
His name was rarely on the scientific papers announcing the results or on the patents that cemented their commercial utility. He let others give the grand talks at national scientific meetings. He found his satisfaction not in public credit but in getting the best out of his boys, managing their strengths and weaknesses to churn ever forward towards that distant point of light somewhere high up the mountainside he’d first seen so many years before. Interviewed years following Subbarow’s death in 1948, his one-time employee Dr. Clifford Hesseltine would remark that, “Dr. Subbarow was unique in that he could take dreams and people and make reality.”
* * *
For years, my father spoke of how after he retired he wanted to move near the temple and dedicate himself totally to religion.
It’s now been two years since he last went to work. My parents did build their house on a small plot of land about five minutes’ walk from their temple. Yet he never goes to the morning arati, doesn’t help with planning the major religious celebrations, and hasn’t begun preaching or distributing books like he once said he wanted. When my mother makes plans to attend meditation retreats in North Carolina or California, he always demurs, citing the difficulty of controlling his blood sugars when traveling.
Though his health remains excellent, he has become increasingly obsessed with death. We’ve long joked in the family about how he keeps bringing it up apropos of nothing, declaring how he doesn’t want any surgeries, any life support. He was deeply affected by his older brother’s long illness before his passing, and he doesn’t want any of that. He wrote up an advance directive and had my sister, a lawyer, read it over for mistakes.
The man once so full of that crazed immigrant’s courage that he’d moved seven thousand miles to start a new life in a place he didn’t know anything about now spends most of his days on the couch watching the news. The man once so full of energy he worked around the clock and slept on his office desk now goes to bed before the sun even sets.
In the Hindu tradition, the fourth and final stage of life is sannyasa, or the gradual withdrawal from material life to pursue a spiritual path. We are not this body, it is taught, and as a sannyasi prepares for death he must renounce all the earthly pleasures and pains that once were the reason for living.
Now that my sister and I are grown, my father has turned away from this world, it is true, but instead of flowering towards the light, he has only drawn further inwards. It’s a defensive position, one in which he has given up much of the earthly pleasures but none of the earthly pain. Part of it is his personality — always contrarian, distrustful of others, unable to reveal any part of his inner life. That isn’t all of it, though.
I try to find the line that connects the man he was to the man he is now, but any attempt to do that relies on knowledge of what did or did not happen, and how that experience led to the present day. I want to find the words to ask him what he knows, but every time I think the light is just right, my voice fails. Reflection is a luxury he has always believed we cannot afford. Not when there is more work to be done.
Instead, we discuss current events and televised sports. We laugh often. There is cause for joy when we are together. And it is in this way that we mark time in transit to someplace we cannot see.
* * *
In his last weeks, Subbarow turned towards the future, this time on his own terms. He declined a job offer from Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, conceiving a plan to build his own cancer laboratory in New Jersey from the ground up. Though he still lived in a spartan apartment close to work, he had softened around the edges, making time for walks, horseback rides, and leisurely meals with friends. He had even taken up flying to relieve stress, and many afternoons he could be found in his single-engine airplane high in the sky, cruising to small, grassy airfields across the East Coast.
Though he still awoke at 4:30 every morning and continued to work seven days a week, the streak of mysticism that had once led him to pursue a life as a monk began to slowly re-emerge, and he now continued his spiritual exploration, unbound by any particular tradition. By 1940, a friend commented that in spirit “he was already a sannyasi.”
It was natural that he eventually drifted into John Haynes Holmes’ Unitarian Church in New York City, which emphasized the importance of individual experience and intellectual freedom in making one’s own way to God. He also began to visit the Emmanuel Baptist Church in nearby Ridgewood, New Jersey, and struck up a friendship with the pastor, Reverend GM Torgersen. They often ate dinner after the Sunday service and discussed questions of faith. Under the direction of Rev. Torgersen, Subbarow made a thorough study of Christian theology including the writings of Nels Ferre and Reinhold Niebuhr. As their relationship deepened, he anonymously donated thousands of dollars to the church, focusing especially on educational outreach programs.
In a letter to Rev. Torgersen, he accepted the Baptist faith without “forsaking the great spiritual qualities” in his “Indian faith.” More and more, Subbarow was unconcerned with national or cultural boundaries. When visiting Indian students now talked to him about India, he showed little interest, his manner verging on discourtesy. Yet he also made no move to apply for permanent American citizenship even though a 1946 change in immigration law allowed him to do so. Perhaps he felt the pursuit of truth would only be sullied by such mundane considerations.
On August 28, 1948, in the midst of this pursuit, on the verge of greater and greater scientific success, he died suddenly in his sleep at the age of 53, the victim, an autopsy showed, of a massive heart attack.
His funeral service in the Emmanuel Baptist Church was packed with mourners, while back in India, where he was unknown outside of his immediate family, short obituaries ran in a few newspapers. The chief executive of Lederle Laboratories sent a heartfelt cable to Subbarow’s mother describing the immense scientific discoveries that he had been able to achieve in only a few short years. His long-neglected wife was blindsided with the unexpected news, and she grieved the husband she had never really known.
Before his death, Subbarow had written that in accordance with Hindu tenets, he wished to be cremated and have his ashes scattered in the ocean. However, when his friend and fellow parishioner Merton Lockhart was given the urn containing those ashes after the funeral, he could not bear to carry out those instructions, believing them to be inconsistent with Baptist belief. Instead, he kept the urn on his mantel, where, years later, he pointed it out to an Indian scientist visiting his home.
Thousands of dollars from Subbarow’s estate arrived in India just as his family was on the verge of defaulting on its enormous debt. After these obligations were met, his wife distributed the rest of the money, paying for the education of numerous nieces, nephews, and grandchildren. In 1953, Lederle opened a new plant near Bombay to manufacture aureomycin. The factory was dedicated to Subbarow’s memory and a plaque near the entrance was inscribed with his words, “Science merely prolongs life — religion deepens it.”
Now, over half a century later, I do not know whether it is still there.
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This essay first appeared in Boulevard, St. Louis’ biannual print journal, founded by fiction writer Richard Burgin in 1985. Our thanks to Nautiyal and the Boulevard staff for allowing us to reprint this essay at Longreads.