The award of the 2010 Nobel Prize for medicine to Robert G. Edwards honors an achievement that was world famous the minute it happened and remains so to this day. With Patrick Steptoe, his late collaborator, Edwards did the pioneering work that resulted in the birth, on July 25, 1978, at Oldham General Hospital in England, of Louise Brown, history’s first “test tube” baby. Her Ceasarean delivery was both a scientific triumph and a worldwide, stop-the-presses, headline story.
Few Westerners — including this reporter — realized that less than 3 months after that epoch-making event, on October 3, 1978, the world’s second test-tube birth took place in Calcutta, India. A team headed by
physician Subhas Mukherjee (often also spelled Subhash Mukhopadhyay) conceived in vitro and delivered a baby girl they identified by the pseudonym “Durga,” after a Hindu goddess who embodies the female creative force, but whose actual name is Kanupriya Agarwal. Mukherjee had devised a method different from — and, in the opinion of some, superior to — that used by the English team.
But unlike Steptoe and Edwards, Mukherjee’s countrymen did not acclaim his achievement. Instead, the Indian scientific establishment doubted his claims. He was investigated by an official scientific committee that included
no one qualified to evaluate his work. Then he was vilified for fraud and prevented from presenting his work to the international scientific community. Humiliated and dispirited, he committed suicide in 1981. Not until a quarter century after “Durga’s” birth did the Indian scientific world recognize his achievement, largely through the efforts of the man previously credited with India’s first test-tube birth, T C Anand Kumar. The tragic tale was popularized in an Indian movie.
Mukherjee always claimed that, had he received the support rather than the opposition of India’s scientific establishment, he could have beaten the British team to the first IVF birth. And even today, writes journalist Shobha John in the Sunday Times of India for January 16, 2011, an “Indian crab syndrome” — the tendency to pull down to the common level anyone trying to follow an innovative course — explains why, in the words of G P Talwar, founder-director of India’s National Institute of Immunology, “research at Indian universities rarely comes up with path-breaking work.” John adds, “doctors admit the going is tough in the Indian universe of scientific and medical research.”
“Heads of department (HoDs) put up opposition to anything unconventional and are part of expert groups which one can’t fight against,” Talwar observes. “Staff selection maybe biased and meritorious students may find it hard to survive and prosper unless they have a godfather, [Talwar] says,” John writes. John further quotes Anoop Misra, director and head of the department of diabetes and metabolic diseases at Fortis Hospitals in Delhi, to the effect that bureaucratic foot dragging and infighting can delay research for months.
How widespread the “crab syndrome” is in India is not clear. It is clear, however, that the phenomenon is not unique to that country. Unconventional discoveries by Western scientists have also met with disbelief and even scorn. The prion and the connection of Heliobacter pylori to stomach ulcers are just two prominent examples of advances that met strong initial resistance. Steptoe and Edwards also faced skepticism, and worse, before they succeeded.
But if John’s interpretation is correct, India would need, as John puts it, “institutional reforms and a process to keep department heads in check” if it wants to unleash the full talents of its scientists.