Lewis Wolpert: India's leading biologist started his career in cancer with no knowledge of the subject

Click to follow
The Independent Online

"He gets away with murder," proclaimed the first sentence of an article about Pushpa Bhargava in the journal Nature in 1987.

"He gets away with murder," proclaimed the first sentence of an article about Pushpa Bhargava in the journal Nature in 1987. But the piece was actually full of praise for the institute which he had founded, doing research in molecular biology in Hyderabad. The institute was celebrating its opening - the Indian prime minister was there, as were five ambassadors and 3,000 invited guests, plus 4,000 security guards. How did this "murderer" manage to achieve all this?

Pushpa Bhargava has little recollection of his early years, or even why he did not go to school until he was 10, and was put in a class with 14-year-olds. He went on to a special school in order to be able to enter university at 14. At Lucknow University he studied science, but was, with many other students, involved in the fight for independence from British rule. Even though a friend was shot dead at his side, he says he has never experienced fear (though he admits his knees wobble when he is exposed to heights).

During this period of protest and study, Bhargava worked 18 hours a day and read some 300 books on a wide variety of topics. He had a natural talent for maths, but he did not regard his skill in doing all the operations as real understanding, which, for him, was everything. He did not like chemistry - too much to remember - yet did a PhD in it, and published 11 papers. He needed an appraisal of his work, and by a confusion between Sir Robert Robertson and Sir Robert Robinson, received a glowing report from the latter, a world-famous chemist. This led to a prestigious fellowship at a chemical institute in Hyderabad.

The work went very well and at the age of 23 he had a paper in Nature - where one publishes is as important in India as in the West. But he was, he says, totally dispirited, as he was not excited by his work. It then seemed to him that biology was becoming really exciting with the applications of chemistry. He started working on cancer in Wisconsin with no knowledge of the subject whatsoever, but he had both the capacity and desire to learn. His other skill lay in the persistent questioning, even pestering at times, of his colleagues. He was part of a group that discovered an important anti-cancer drug.

But Bhargava was still not secure in biology, and then spent a year at the National Institute of Medical Research (NIMR) in London in 1956. After listening to a lecture on fertilisation, he asked a key question about sperm - did they synthesise proteins? The standard answer was "no", but he did the experiment and found that they do. With colleagues, he then discovered that it was the mitochondria, the power organs of cells, that were producing the proteins.

This led to a major Nature paper, and friendship with leading molecular biologists such as Francis Crick and Aaron Klug. He was now more than just respectable in biology. So he returned to Hyderabad and worked on biological problems that led, for example, to important information on liver cells.

It was clear to him that India needed a biological institute along the general lines of those in physics and chemistry, but his conviction was that it had to have molecular biology at its core. While those in charge of funding were very sympathetic, the more conventional zoologists and botanists were furious and hostile. For the moment he was defeated, but he fought on. He was helped by the 1973 oil crisis, as it was realised that it would be possible to engineer plants to fix nitrogen, so they would no longer need fertilisers.

There was also by now the general recognition of the importance and potential power of molecular cell biology. Bhargava finally won and thinks his experience fighting for independence as a student helped him in the battle, as he had learnt to be ruthless. He fought for money all the way to the founding of the Institute for Cellular and Molecular Biology. I have just visited it, and it is wonderful, and of world class. The irony is that its structure is largely based on the London NIMR he visited, which there are now attempts to close.

Professor Wolpert is professor of biology as applied to medicine at University College London

Comments