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

"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

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Photographer / Floorplanner / Domestic Energy Assessor

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Photographer/ Floor planner /...

Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - Surrey - £40,000

£30000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - Guildford/Craw...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Assistant

£13500 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Customer Service Assistant is...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £35,000

£16000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An ambitious and motivated Sale...

Day In a Page

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence