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Har Gobind Khorana: Scientist who taught us to be modest, except in our aim

Aditi Tandon

Tribune News Service

New Delhi, January 9

The world of science on Sunday celebrated the 100th birth anniversary of Nobel Laureate Har Gobind Khorana and recalled his timeless advice to peers and students alike. “We must be modest except in our aims,” Khorana would say quoting Otto Loewi, the winner of the Nobel Prize in Medicine (1936).

Born in Raipur, a village in the part of Punjab now in Pakistan, Khorana’s work has inspired a special issue of the Indian Academy of Sciences, which is celebrating the scientist’s life and times.

The publication is an insight into Khorana’s modesty despite his massive scientific achievements that culminated in the 1968 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine he shared with Marshall Nirenberg and Robert Holley for the elucidation of the genetic code.

Writing in the publication, Uttam L RajBhandary, Lester Wolfe Professor of molecular biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, recalls how the legendary scientist had failed to find a job upon his return to India in 1949 after having received a PhD abroad and also how he ended up in organic chemistry though he was supposed to study fungicides.

“There is an interesting story on how Khorana ended up working for a PhD in organic chemistry. Because his fellowship came from the Ministry of Agriculture of the Government of India, Khorana was initially slated to work at an institute in Berkshire, England, to study insecticides and fungicides. However, with the end of the World War II, most educational institutions in the UK were crowded because of the influx of a large number of veterans returning home to finish their education. Since Khorana had a master’s degree in organic chemistry, the Indian High Commissioner’s Office in London decided that he might as well work for a PhD in organic chemistry instead of studying insecticides and fungicides. In Liverpool, Khorana received a PhD in 1948,” RajBhandary says in the issue Congress veteran Jairam Ramesh shared on Twitter today.

The publication speaks of Khorana’s tenacity — how he simply showed up in the laboratory of Vladimir Prelog in Zurich (a Nobel winner), with no recommendations, pleaded for space to do postdoctoral research under him and got accepted; how his determination to learn the German language introduced him to a world of chemical reagents which proved pivotal to much of his early work and how he ended up in Vancouver for his first position as an independent investigator after failing to get a job in India where he returned in 1949. The scientist passed away on November 9, 2011.

Grounded in humility

  • Nobel Laureate Har Gobind Khorana showed up in the laboratory of Vladimir Prelog in Zurich (a Nobel winner) with no recommendations
  • He pleaded for space to do postdoctoral research under Prelog and got accepted
  • He ended up in Vancouver for his first position as an independent investigator after failing to get a job in India

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