Upendranath Brahmachari was an Indian scientist and a leading medical practitioner who discovered a medicine for the dreaded Kala-azar disease, also known as Visceral leishmaniasis. His medicine was a better alternative than the existing medicine. He synthesised Urea Stibamine or carbostibamide, way back in 1922 and successfully tested its efficacy in the treatment of Kala-azar which is caused by a protozoon, Leishmania donovani, and was the second-largest parasitic killer in the world, after malaria.
His discovery saved millions of lives in India, especially in Assam, where earlier entire villages would be wiped out by the disease. In those days when antibiotics have not been discovered, diseases were treated symptomatically by palliative methods, and there were few specific drugs, such as quinine for malaria, iron for anaemia, digitalis for heart diseases, etc. Brahmachari’s achievement proved to be a milestone in application of science to medical treatment. The mortality rate dropped from 90% to below 10% and by 1933, about 3.25 lakh lives were saved in Assam alone. The medicine has also been used successfully in Greece, France and China. It was never patented to ensure its easy availability to the masses.
Upendranath Brahmachari was born on 19 December 1873, in Sardanga village, Purbasthali, District Burdwan, West Bengal, India. His father Nilmony Brahmachari was a physician in East Indian Railways, and his mother Saurabh Sundari Devi was a housewife.
He had his schooling at Eastern Railways Boys’ High School, Jamalpur, and passed BA from Hooghly Mohsin College with honours in Mathematics and Chemistry, in 1893. He then studied Medicine with Higher Chemistry and got master’s degree in 1894 from the Presidency College, Kolkata. Meanwhile in 1898, he married Nani Bala Devi.
In 1900, in the M.B. Examination of the University of Calcutta, he stood first in Medicine and in Surgery and received Goodeve and Macleod awards. He passed MD degree in 1902, and was awarded a PhD degree in 1904, for his research paper on “Studies in Haemolysis” from the University of Calcutta.
His Career and Contributions in Medicine
Brahmachari joined the Provincial Medical Service in September 1899. In 1901 he was appointed as a teacher of Pathology and Materia Medica, and physician in the Dacca Medical School.
In 1905, he was appointed as a teacher in Medicine and Physician at the Campbell Medical School, Nil Ratan Sircar Medical College and Hospital, Calcutta. During this period, he did most of his research on Kala-azar and made his monumental discovery of Urea Stibamine. It was a better substitute for the earlier medicine manufactured by Messrs Allen and Hanbury’s Ltd. and sold under the trade name “Stibenyl”.
In 1927, he retired from the government service as a physician. Later, he joined the Carmichael Medical College in Kolkata as Professor of Tropical Diseases. He also served the National Medical Institute as In-charge of its Tropical Disease Ward. He was also the Head of the Department of Biochemistry and Honorary Professor at the University College of Science, Calcutta.
Brahmachari also made another outstanding contribution, and was the first to identify a new disease, which was named after him – Brahmachari Leishmanoid. This is a skin infection or cutaneous leishmaniasis which occurs in patients who have recovered from Kala-azar.
In 1924, he established the Brahmachari Research Institute in his residence in Cornwallis Street, aka Vidhan Sarani, Kolkata. This institute with the assistance of his sons Phanindra Nath and Nirmal Kumar, did quite well both in research and manufacture of medicines, till its closure in 1963.
Philanthropy and Social Services
Brahmachari helped form the first Blood Bank in India and world’s second Blood Bank in Kolkata in 1939. He was also the Chairman of the Blood Transfusion Service of Bengal, and the Vice-President of the St. John Ambulance Association of the Bengal branch, as well as its President. He was the first Indian to become the Chairman of the Managing Body of the Indian Red Cross Society of the Bengal Branch. He contributed to the High School in Purbasthali, his ancestral village; which was later named after his father, as Purbasthali Nilmony Brahmachari Institution.
Awards and Honours
He received many awards, including the Griffith Memorial Prize of the University of Calcutta, the Minto Medal by the Calcutta School of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene (1921) and the Sir William Jones Medal by the Asiatic Society of Bengal.
In 1924, he was awarded the title of Rai Bahadur and awarded the Kaisar-i-Hind Gold Medal, by the Governor General Lord Lytton. In 1934, he was conferred a Knighthood by the British Government.
In 1929 and 1942, he was nominated for the Nobel Prize for physiology and medicine. In 1936, he was chosen as the President of the 23rd session of the Indian Science Congress in Indore. Same year, he was also the President of the Indian Chemical Society, Calcutta. He was conferred the fellowships of the Royal Society of Medicine, London and the Indian National Science Academy. He was the President of the Asiatic Society of Bengal for two years during 1928–29. He was also the Vice-chairman of the board of Trustees of the Indian Museum. Loudon Street near Minto Park, Kolkata was renamed in his honour as, Dr. U. N. Brahmachari Street.
“As a matter of the most vital concern in nation-building, the problem of nutrition demands very careful consideration by statesmen and scientists alike, more so due to the fact, as has been recently observed, that a great part of the world’s population is not consuming the necessary food stuff. An eminent Swiss authority predicts the decay of civilization unless there is a fundamental revision of the people’s diet.”
– Upendranath Brahmachari in his Presidential address to the Indian Science Congress in 1936.
Upendranath Brahmachari was one of the most under-rated geniuses of India, whose tremendous contribution in Medicine has not been appreciated adequately. One of the reasons was that his outstanding achievements came during the time when India was ruled by the British and the Indians were pre-occupied with freedom struggle. Nevertheless, he will always be remembered as the scientist-physician who saved million of Indian lives.
Written By: Raj Kumar Hansdah