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Department of Anthropology: Asian (In)Fertilities


Selected news stories from the international press relating to Asian (In)Fertilities:

Beautiful Mind: The story of Dr. Subhas Mukherjee creator of India's first test-tube baby - Times of India

(13 June 2009)

His was the tragic tale that inspired Tapan Sinha's Ek Doctor Ki Maut'. It's a gut-wrenching story of a genius being humiliated by jealous colleagues, harassed by an insensitive government and driven to suicide. Six days before the death anniversary of Dr Subhas Mukherjee creator of India's first test-tube baby Times of India revisits his legacy and finds that the government's apathy is still the same

June 19, 1981. Namita Mukherjee, a teacher, returns from school to the fifth-floor flat on Southern Avenue where she lives with her husband, doctor and scientist Subhas Mukherjee. He has been depressed for some time, backstabbed by colleagues, jeered in his fraternity and ridiculed by the government. All because he believed he could create life outside the womb. The moment Namita steps in, she sees her husband's body hanging. The suicide note says: "I can't wait everyday for a heart attack to kill me."

The creator of India's first test tube baby one of the most brilliant minds the country has ever seen was dead. He was 50 and the inventor of a modern miracle, one that would change the lives of millions of childless couples in the years to come.

But the apathy that Subhas Mukherjee suffered in his lifetime continues 28 years after his death. Namita, who devotedly stood by her husband through every humiliation and harassment, is now frail, partly paralyzed and bed-ridden. Clinging on to the memory of her husband.

Her last wish of seeing an institute named after her husband a promise made by the state government four years ago is yet to be fulfilled. If she could get up and walk to the site where the research institute is supposed to come up, it would break her heart.

A dust-covered plaque at the academic building of Nil Ratan Sircar Medical College and Hospital is the only sign that the project is listed on some government file. On May 31, 2005, the health department issued an order to set up an institute for research on reproduction and stem cell. A year later, health minister Surjya Kanta Mishra laid the foundation stone in the memory of Mukherjee who had spent his most productive years at NRS.

Like the plaque, the file is gathering dust in a room at Swasthya Bhawan. "It is in the pipeline and we are working on it," said S N Banerjee, director of medical education. A small group of the legendary scientist's associates is working hard to keep his memory alive. But even their efforts are being stonewalled by the same apathy that put an abrupt end to Mukherjee's life.

The health department has done little to honour Mukherjee's legacy. At work is the same bureaucratic wrangle that denied the scientist his rightful place in medical science history and drove him to suicide. Mukherjee remains a neglected icon in Bengal. Today, when invitro fertilization clinics have mushroomed all over the country, when gynaecologists cannot stop citing their achievements using IVF technique, no one spares a thought for the man who created it Dr Subhas Mukherjee.

Behind the suicide is a most shameful tale of government indifference, of professional jealousy and a community's refusal to admit the superiority of one of its own ilk.

The establishment administrative and medical has done its best to keep Mukherjee in oblivion. But they haven't really succeeded. His life and death have been laid threadbare in public. It has inspired popular fiction (Ramapada Chowdhury's novel Abhimanyu) and cinema (Tapan Sinha's national award winning Ek Doctor Ki Maut).

However, nothing has changed for the man who is arguably Bengal's foremost scientist in the post-Independence era and, many feel, worthy of winning a Nobel Prize. His own state and people may have shunned him, but the world continues to discover him anew.

Mukherjee is only the third scientist from Kolkata to be included in the Dictionary of Medical Biography, published from the UK in 2007. The others are Ronald Ross and U N Brahmachary.

Mukherjee with a double PhD in reproductive physiology and reproductive endocrinology started work on the IVF technique in the mid-60s. Such was his passion that he convinced his wife never to have a child as it could hamper his work. He even built an animal house for carrying out experiments.

"He never wanted to leave Kolkata since nowhere else would he have got so many patients. During the height of his crisis, some of his doctor friends suggested that he move out but he refused. He was a genius. Nothing could keep him down," said Sunit Mukherjee, his only surviving associate. Mukherjee experimented with the use of frozen and thawed embryos which had never been tried before and also worked on ways to control the menstrual cycle. Only a few people very close to him understood his experiments. Many felt he was mad.

"He read a paper in the Indian Science Congress in 1976 where he talked about controlling menstruation for more than a year. Today, the Americans have produced a pill which can stop menstruation for three months," Sunit Mukherjee said.

The test tube baby experiment that Mukherjee was carrying out succeeded on Oct 3, 1978. Durga, or Kanupriya, was born to a childless couple staying at Lord Sinha Road. The news caused an immediate sensation. But Kolkata's medical fraternity reacted with suspicion hostility even.

"When the news leaked that a test tube baby had been born, people questioned Subhas how he could achieve what the US hadn't? Initially he didn't want anybody to know what he was working on. It was an experiment and he didn't know what the outcome would be," Mukherjee said.

Neither the government nor doctors believed Mukherjee. He was ridiculed and abused in public meetings. A government committee headed by a radiophysicist, of all people was formed to judge the fertility expert's claims. The committee ruled against him despite the documents and affidavits submitted by Mukherjee and his associates.

The humiliation didn't end here. Calls came from all over the country and the world inviting Mukherjee to deliver lectures on the test tube baby. But the government stonewalled all of these, allowing him to go only till Delhi.

Mukherjee couldn't recover from this shock. The then health minister Nani Bhattacharya later explained that the decision was taken in "public interest". Mukherjee was transferred to Bankura Medical College. In 1980, he suffered a heart attack, after which he was transferred to RG Kar Medical College and Hospital.

The flashpoint in this harassment came in the second week of June, 1981, when he was transferred again to the Regional Institute of Ophthalmology as professor of electro-physiology. His research and experiments stopped. His patience snapped. A shattered Mukherjee killed himself.

Recognition came posthumous. T C Anand Kumar who had extensively gone through Mukherjee's paper and was later officially named the first creator of the test tube baby in India admitted that the honour should have gone to the Kolkata-based scientist. The public admission from Kumar came in 1997, 16 years after Mukherjee ended his life.

"He was the first to have invented the method. When I went through his research papers I realized we were all following him," said Kumar. He wrote to chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee requesting him "to consider reversing the wrong meted out to him (Subhas Mukherjee) by the earlier government department".

The institute planned at NRS was supposed to right the wrongs. It's yet to see the light of the day.

The blueprint of the institute was prepared by Anand Kumar. The delay has angered him so much that he doesn't want to be involved with the project any more. "I don't know why the West Bengal government is dragging its feet. They don't seem to be interested," Kumar told TOI from Bangalore.

The Dr Subhas Mukherjee Memorial Reproductive Biology Research Centre set up in his memory hasn't been able to carry on with his work. An annual lecture held in Mukherjee's memory was last held in 2006. "The gynaecologists didn't show interest. Unless the younger generation comes forward it will be difficult to continue with the researches that he was working on," said Sunit Mukherjee.

Namita Mukherjee, bed-ridden for five years, prays that she would see the institute before breathing her last. "That is the only reason why I'm alive. I still hope that I will be able to see the institute before I die," said the 70-year-old. Papers, documents, journals that Mukherjee used are lying around the Southern Avenue flat. She doesn't have the means to preserve them.