Giving up the heroes | Political economics


After the partition of August 1947, India and Pakistan attempted to reconstruct their past by adopting Hegel’s philosophical approach to recording and presenting history in order to reinforce respective national narratives and ideologies. Its essence – to selectively objectify the archives and present the facts to advance in a particular direction – was to select the periods, regions, events and characters of their choice while dismissing those who questioned their program of construction of nation and state building. Consequently, many talented, competent, capable, benevolent and humane souls, who had served the people in various capacities, forms and situations were excluded from the pages of official histories and scholarly writings.

Like many others, Har Gobind Khurana, Nobel laureate, fell prey to this project of denial by heroes, philanthropists and scientists because of their faith. His 100th birthday (9 January 1922) has passed without any commemoration by Punjabis in particular and Pakistanis in general.

Khurana was born in a small village, Raipur, in Multan district. It is now part of the Kabirwala tehsil of Khanewal district in Punjab. His father was a Patwari (a village clerk in the agricultural income collection system). Despite being poor, his father devoted himself to the education of his children. They were practically the only educated family in the village inhabited by a hundred people.

Little is known about his childhood and youth. Since there was no formal school in the village at that time, he mostly learned from his father and older siblings in an informal school in the village. After four years of informal education, he attended Dayanand Anglo-Vedic High School in Multan. Then, at the age of eighteen, he was admitted to the University of Punjab, Lahore, where he obtained his Bachelor of Science in 1943 and his Master of Science in 1945.

In 1945, the Indian government granted him a scholarship to study organic chemistry at the University of Liverpool in the United Kingdom. He completed his doctorate under Roger JS Beer in 1948, a year after the bloody and tragic partition of Punjab. His family had to leave Multan for Delhi and he decided to stay in England instead of returning home. The following year, he pursued postdoctoral studies with Professor Vladimir Prelog at ETH Zurich in Switzerland, where for almost a year he worked on the chemistry of alkaloids. It was an unpaid position.

He returned to India and stayed with his family for a brief period in 1949. However, he could not find work there. He therefore decided to return to England, where he worked with George Wallace Kenner and Alexander R Todd on peptides and nucleotides. He stayed in Cambridge from 1950 to 1952.

Few Punjabis in particular and Pakistanis in general know of the “father of chemical biology”, whose legacy transformed our understanding of genes, genetics and the genome and impacted the clinical course of many diseases, from cancer to Covid-19..

In 1952, the British Columbia Research Council at the University of British Columbia, Canada, offered him a position which he accepted and moved there with his family. He worked on “nucleic acids and the synthesis of many important biomolecules”. Soon, thanks to his innovative scientific methods, he was widely recognized by other scientists.

In 1960 he moved to the University of Wisconsin at Madison, accepting the position of co-director of the Institute for Enzyme Research, where he was promoted to professor of biochemistry in 1962. There he and his colleagues began to work on understanding the exact mechanisms of translation of genes into proteins – the code of life or the genetic code (how the “language” of DNA and RNA is transformed into proteins in the cell). Khurana was able to show that sequences of triplets code for specific amino acids, corroborating the work of Marshall Nirenberg, who was to share the Nobel Prize for Medicine with him in 1968.

Har Gobind Khurana’s role, according to the Nobel Prize website, is as follows:[He] made important contributions to this field by building different RNA chains using enzymes. By using these enzymes, he was able to produce proteins. The amino acid sequences of these proteins then solved the rest of the puzzle.

A few years after receiving the Nobel Prize, Khurana shifted his research focus to biological membranes and light transduction in retinal photoreceptor cells. In 1971, he was appointed the Alfred P Sloan Professor of Biology and Chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1971. He retired from MIT in 2007 and breathed his last on November 9, 2011. Upon his death in 2011, obituaries across scientific journals spoke of a scientist “who crossed borders”, pioneering “the concepts and tools of chemistry and physics to address fundamental questions in biology”.

In addition to the Nobel Prize, Khurana received the Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award (1968) and the National Medal of Science (1987).

However, few Punjabis in particular and Pakistanis in general know of the “Father of Chemical Biology” whose legacy transformed our understanding of genes, genetics and the genome and impacted clinical course. many illnesses, from cancer to Covid-19. This is probably because he never got the place in local discourse and textbooks that he deserved, mainly because of his faith. Thus it was altered in our literature through the communitization of textbooks and academic writings.

He was born into a Punjabi family in what is now Pakistan. Instead of denying him, we should accept him and treat him as a local hero. It is absolutely necessary to include chapters on Har Gobind Khurana and his contributions to science – chemistry, biology and genetics – in our textbooks.

The author holds a PhD in History from Shanghai University and is a lecturer at GCU, Faisalabad. He can be contacted at [email protected] He tweets at @MazharGondal87

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