Unsung Indian hero

Print edition : November 19, 2010

THE first scientifically documented Indian in vitro fertilisation (IVF) baby, Harsha, was born on August 6, 1986. This was the result of the collaborative work of researchers from the Indian Council of Medical Research's (ICMR) Institute for Research in Reproduction, Mumbai, led by the late T.C. Anand Kumar, and clinicians from King Edward Memorial Hospital, Mumbai, led by Indira Hinduja. However, it was Subhas Mukerji who created the first true Indian test tube baby, on October 3, 1978, a mere 67 days after 2010 Nobel laureate Robert Edwards' achievement, and should be credited for this breakthrough in the country. Mukerji, then a professor of physiology at the West Bengal government's B.S. Medical College, was assisted in the work by Sunit Mukherjee of Jadavpur University and Saroj Kanti Bhattacharya of Calcutta Medical College.

The method followed by Mukerji was somewhat different from that of Edwards and was, in fact, the first in the world to use cryopreservation of embryos, a preferred technique around the world today for assisted reproduction. It is interesting to note that both Edwards and Mukerji obtained their doctorates from Edinburgh University.

The restoration of due credit to Mukerji by the Indian medical fraternity came only in 1997, and the first official recognition by the ICMR came only in 2002. But all these came much after Mukerji was driven to suicide on June 19, 1981, because of the indifference of the medical community, bureaucratic ridicule and denouncement of his work as fraudulent by a committee of (non-) experts constituted by the West Bengal government to inquire into Mukerji's claims. He was even denied permission to travel abroad to present his results. The baby, Kanupriya Agrawal, alias Durga, is today a successful business management professional.

There was no practice at that time in India of having ethics committees in medical institutions to approve such research, and Mukerji, already victimised before he could publish his work, was prevented from doing so by the administrative machinery of the West Bengal government. But he had presented his work in various conferences in the country. On the basis of his handwritten laboratory notes and his prior publications and presentations, Anand Kumar wrote in Current Science (Vol 72, No. 7, April 10, 1997): I have no doubt that Mukerji did produce a test tube baby. As far as I am concerned, Mukerji did reach great heights. His achievements in the biology of reproduction dwarf all other achievements of India in this field. Unfortunately, ignorance of the medical fraternity, bureaucratic arrogance and vindictiveness led to the loss of one of our distinguished scientists. We lost our claim to having been the first in the world to have succeeded in not only fertilising the eggs in vitro but also having successfully cryopreserved the embryo, thawing it and leading to the birth of a healthy normal baby following the embryo's replacement into the mother's womb.

While the Nobel Committee's information dossier on the 2010 award does talk about the advances in cryopreservation in the IVF technique after Edwards, it refers only to the work of A. Trounson and L. Mohr that was published in Nature in 1983 even though now ample scientific evidence is available to testify that Mukerji had achieved this five years earlier.

R. Ramachandran
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