Unknown great scientists of India

Shehjar Magazine
Unknown great scientists of India
Dr. Moreshwar Vithal Nadkarni
*Nalini M. Nadkarni, PhD.
The Evergreen State College, Olympia, Washington
Editorial Note

n this series of Shehjar articles, we have attempted to bring to our readers biosketches of eminent Indian and Kashmiri scientists who are not only famous for their scientific contributions but also as role models. They were often unofficial mentors to young scientists, helped us with advice and guided our progress. In the earlier issues we covered the lives of Dr. T. N. Khoshoo (Botanist and Ecologist), Dr. M. Wani (medicinal chemist, Taxol discoverer) and Dr. V.Subaroa (Biochemist famous for his work on Folic acid and methotrexate).

In the present issue we review the life story of an eminent cancer pharmacologist who was a pioneer in natural product drug research at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, MD.

Dr. Nadkarni worked on isolation of anticancer drugs from a wild plant, which grows in higher reaches and forests of Kashmir. Podophyllum is also called as Wan Wangun in Kashmiri and was known to have medicinal and cancer curing properties. Dr. Nandkarni worked on isolation and characterization of alkaloids from this plant. In subsequent years European drug companies (Sandoz and Bristol) derived and marketed important anticancer podophyllotoxin analogs ( VM-26 and VP-16) from which are important anticancer drugs.

The author of this article, Nalini is famous in her own way as a well-known ecologist who has been photographed climbing the canopy of tropical tall trees in search of rare flora and fauna and more recently for her work in prisons of Oregon where she has become famous for making our prisons ecofriendly. She is a credit to our community of scientists of Indian origin and parentage.

The editorial office requests that names of eminent NRI, Indian and Kashmiri scientist who have contributed to our success be submitted to akrishan@med.miami.edu for inclusion in future issues of Shehjar.

o a child, a father is mostly just a father, not a professional. In this column, I have the opportunity to describe his contributions to cancer research. As the third daughter of Dr. M.V. Nadkarni, a career pharmacologist with the National Cancer Institute (NCI), my job each morning was to iron his white shirt before he went off to work, a formal figure in his suit, tie, and briefcase. He returned each day at 6 pm, his suit, tie, and briefcase looking just as tidy as they had that morning. Only seldom did he speak of his work, but I came to understand that he was helping to find cures for cancer through the use of plants, and, later in his career as a Program Director, he helped others to do the same.

My father was born on July 18, 1918, the second son of a family from the village of Thane, India, near Mumbai. He received his Bachelors of Science in chemistry from the University of Bombay. He was one of the early waves of Indian scholars to arrive in the United States for higher education, his boat sailing beneath the arches of the Golden Gate Bridge in 1945. He received a scholarship from the Indian government to study pharmacology, and completed his PhD in 1947 at the State University of Iowa.

That is where he met my mother, Goldie Pechenuk, an Orthodox Jew of Russian parentage, from Brooklyn, New York who was studying Romance languages. Although both families initially frowned upon their union, they married and raised five children in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. At that time, Indians were rare, even in our nation’s capital, and mixed marriages even rarer.
My parents decided to raise us in a home that was as Indian as possible, so my mother cooked Indian food, which we ate with our hands while sitting on the kitchen floor. A small ivory carving of Ganapathi sat on an alter in our pantry – right next to the Menorah. If a family member were sick, or about to take a journey, we would gather to say “Namaste” and receive the sweet-smelling prasad that my father obtained from the bhattaji in his home village, and which arrived in fragrant envelopes to our house several times a year. On Sunday mornings, my father would read to the five children from the writings of Jawaharlal Nehru. In the dark of winter, we celebrated Diwali as well as Christmas and Chanukah.

I grew up to become a forest ecologist, and now carry out research on tropical rainforest ecology with the support of grants from the National Science Foundation. It is only now, as an adult and as a scientist myself, that I can better appreciate the professional work of my father in cancer chemotherapy and grants administration at the NCI. Looking over my father’s Curriculum Vitae, I now understand that he did not just go to and from work with his tidy briefcase, but that he contributed strongly in the search for tools against cancer.

Although my father went back to India immediately after getting his doctorate to look for a professional job, he ended finding his dream position carrying out cancer research in the United States. He began his career as a Post-Doctoral Fellow, at the NCI, in Bethesda, Maryland. As a young investigator, he explored the components of podophyllin, an isolate from the plant Podophyllum emodi, the Himalayan Mayapple native to India. He also explored other aspects of cancer chemotherapy, including the excretion of alkylating drugs in cancer patients and the toxicology of phthalanilides. From 1954-1958, he joined the faculty in the Department of Pharmacology at George Washington University, but then returned to the NCI as the Head of the Pharmacology Section in Drug Evaluation Research.

As he progressed forward in his career, he moved up into the higher levels of administration. The position he held when he retired was as the Chief of Extramural Research in the Developmental Therapeutics Program at the NCI. His patient and deliberate nature, his attention to detail, and his insistence on the highest integrity of work based on science rather than politics, made him the right person to provide oversight for the awarding of grants.

From my current perspective, I see that he contributed greatly as an Indian-born scientist at a time when there were few other Indians in his professional and personal arena. Although we had a few Indian families as our friends, the culture and customs that my family practiced were not the norm for suburban Maryland. When I look at the group pictures taken at the Gordon Conferences and other meetings he attended, his is the only brown and unmistakably Indian face in those groups.

My father died of a sudden stroke on August 9, 1995, at age 79. He enjoyed his last years with Goldie, his wife of 44 years; his five children -- Saroj, Susheela, Nalini, Vinay, and Mohan -- and his many grandchildren. To the end, he worked in his beloved garden, enjoying especially the native Mayapple plants that bloomed there each spring
Dr. Nalini Nadkarni is a professor at The Evergreen State College. Since 1985, she has carried out forest canopy research on four continents, mainly in Costa Rica and in Washington State, supported by the National Science Foundation and the National Geographic Society. Her awards include a Guggenheim Fellowship and an Aldo Leopold Leadership Fellowship. In 1994, she founded the International Canopy Network to foster communication among canopy researchers, educators, and conservationists. She has published 85 scientific articles and three books. Her work has been highlighted in popular magazines and has appeared in numerous television documentaries. She lives with her biologist husband and two children in Olympia, Washington.
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