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The Unsung Hero

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I can’t wait everyday for a heart attack to kill me.

 This is what Namita Mukherjee, a teacher, finds on returning home after school to her apartment in Southern Avenue where she lived with her scientist husband. This, and her husband’s hanging body.

The hands that wrote this suicide note were also the ones that created the world’s second and India’s first test tube baby, Kanupriya Agrawal alias Durga on October 3, 1987; just 67 days after the world’s first test tube baby Marie Louise Brown was born.

A Beautiful Mind

Dr Subhash Mukopadhyay was born on 16th January, 1931 in Hazaribagh, Bihar (now in Jharkhand). Not much is known about his early life. He graduated with an honours degree in physiology from Calcutta National Medical College, which was then affiliated with the prestigious University of Calcutta. After earning a first doctorate in 1958 in reproductive physiology from the University of Calcutta, he proceeded for a second one, from the University of Edinburgh in reproductive endocrinology, which he achieved in 1967.

Fascinated by the idea of creating a baby outside the womb, Mukopadhyay started his scientific experiments on IVF about the same time as the British scientists Robert G Edwards and Patrick Steptoe- creators of the world first test tube baby started theirs. Without any sophisticated scientific tool and a lab, Dr Mukopadhyay achieved success, using simple apparatus and a refrigerator in his small Southern Avenue apartment. The first test tube baby Durga was born.

Injustice

Everything that Dr Mukopadhyay claims is bogus.

 This was the verdict given by the committee of ‘experts’ appointed by the Government of West Bengal under the State Medical Association in 1978.

The members of this committee were people who did not have an iota of idea about either IVF or modern reproductive technology.

His great achievements were enveloped in controversies. Instead of earning a commendation, he was being jeered at and ridiculed by the committee that the Government had appointed to decide the great scientist’s fate. They attacked him by saying that he did not  present enough documentation. In reality, he had presented his findings at the International Congress on Hormonal Steroids at New Delhi in 1978; at the Indian Science Congress at Hyderabad in 1979; and had published a paper in the Indian Journal of Cryogenics in 1978. He had also submitted a report, Transfer of In Vitro Fertilized Frozen-thawed Human Embryo to the Government of West Bengal.

He was denied permission by the Government to attend international lectures and seminars that he was invited to, and thus he was barred from sharing his achievement with the scientific community.

Other than beaureucratic negligence, Mukopadhyay also had to face social ostracisation and humiliation. The idea of a baby born out of womb caused sensation and controversy in the orthodox Indian society. He was ridiculed and abused in public meetings.

In June, 1981, he was transferred to the Regional Institute of Ophthalmology, in Kolkata.

“He couldn’t handle the politics. He was a scientist, not a lawyer.” says Dr Mukharji, a collaborator and chronicler of Dr Mukopadhyay’s work.

The then Health Minister, Nani Bhattacharya later tried condoning the atrocities, saying that the decision was made in ‘public interest’.

Death of a Doctor

Where he deserved applause and appreciation, Dr Mukopadhyay received reprimand and humiliation. He was cross questioned by the Government several times. His work was dubbed ‘bogus’ and ridiculed. He was broken beyond the point of recovery. His spirits were killed and his achievements were neglected.

Dejected, he committed suicide on June 19, 1981.

Too Late a Recognition

He was the first to have invented the method. When I went through all his research papers, I realized we were all following him.

 In 1997, as T.C. Anand Kumar went through the diary of Dr Subhash Mukopadhyay, he realized that the title he bore of creating India’s first test tube baby belonged to someone else.

1986 was the year in which the press was celebrating the scientific achievement of Dr Kumar, birth of the test tube baby Harsha Chawda in Mumbai on 6th of August. Dr Mukopadhyay was not alive to claim otherwise.

After going through his predecessor’s hand written notes, some ten years later, Dr Kumar had the spirit to present Dr, Mukopadhyay’s scientific achievements to the world. He was exonerated of the fraud charges and, in 2002, ICMR recognized his works for the first time.

Kanupriya Agarwal exposed her identity to the media for the first time, on her 25th birthday at a ceremony organized to honour Dr Mukopadhyay and spoke about her creator. Breaking her silence, she said, “I am not a trophy but I am proud to be the living example of the work of a genius.”

One Hundred Years of Solitude

Namita Mukherjee fought for her husband to her death in 2014, in the same room where she discovered his dead body.

She stood by her husband through the thick and thin while he was undergoing strenuous pressure that the sensation created. Dr Mukopadhyay had convinced her never to have a baby, so that he could dedicate himself entirely to his scientific work. After his death, Namita stayed by herself until she became bedridden for several years before she died.

She had hoped to see the institute set up in her husband’s memory working before dying.

Let’s Not Forget Our Hero

Today, the IVF technology is helping a number of infertile couples, giving them their share of smiles in their lives. Dr Mukopadhyay’s work in the field has been the foremost and it cannot be forgotten.

Though denounced in his own lifetime, he is a great man and a scientific genius who, in the present time and times to come demands recognition and honour.

 

 

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