Scientists hail Har Gobind Khorana on 100th anniversary

Celebrate the Punjab-born Nobel Laureate’s timeless words: ‘We must be modest except in our aims’

Scientists hail Har Gobind Khorana on 100th anniversary

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.

Aditi Tandon

Tribune News Service

New Delhi, January 10

The world of science on Sunday celebrated India-born Har Gobind Khorana on his 100th birth anniversary and recalled the late Nobel Laureate’s timeless advice to peers and students alike. “We must be modest except in our aims,” Khorana would say borrowing from 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 earlier inspired a special issue of the Indian Academy of Sciences, which celebrated 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, and late Har Gobind Khorana’s associate, recalls how the legend failed to find a job upon his return to India in 1949 after receiving a PhD abroad and also how, although supposed to study fungicides, Khorana ended up in organic chemistry.

“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 Second World War, most educational institutes 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,” Raj Bhandary says in the issue Congress veteran Jairam Ramesh shared on Twitter.

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.

Khorana had become an independent investigator at British Columbia Research Council (BCRC), University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada, by 1952 and there was no looking back.

As Umesh Varshney of the Indian Institute of Science explains about his late friend, “Gobind made the best use of the opportunities that came along. That was true of the opportunity to do a Master’s in chemistry at Punjab University, Lahore (then a part of India), a PhD at the University of Liverpool, UK, a post-doctoral research with Vladimir Prelog at Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. It was equally true during his independent research career at Vancouver, Madison and Cambridge.”

By 1960, Khorana had moved from Vancouver to the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where he accomplished his Nobel winning work.

The publication, while saluting Khorana’s spirit, reproduces his own words: “I have met people who believed they knew at a very young age what they wanted to do in their lives. I envied them, but my own life was not like that…” Khorana’s life was a sum of the opportunities he never lost.

The scientist passed away on November 9, 2011.

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