In 1997, as T.C. Anand Kumar browsed through the diary of Subhash Mukherjee, he realized that the title he bore—creator of India’s first test-tube baby—belonged to someone else.
Dr Kumar, a reproductive biologist, was known for having created India’s first test-tube baby. His collaboration with gynaecologist Indira Hinduja had resulted in the widely publicized birth of Harsha Chawda in Mumbai on 6 August 1986. But going through Dr Mukherjee’s handwritten notes years later, Dr Kumar concluded that Dr Mukherjee had preceded him by eight years: India’s first test-tube baby, Kanupriya Agarwal alias Durga, was born on 3 October 1978 in Kolkata. Since the feat had received almost no acknowledgement from India’s scientific community, Dr Kumar had been unaware of it.
Out of the shadows: (clockwise from top left) Thirty-two-year-old Didwania. Amit Agrawal / Mint; a portrait of Dr Mukherjee on his graduation; and Dr Mukherjee addressing a seminar on the population crisis organized by the US Information Service in Kolkata in 1974. Dr Mukherji is seated immediately to his left.
When the media was celebrating Dr Kumar’s supposed breakthrough in 1986, Dr Mukherjee wasn’t around to reiterate his claims. Frustrated by the way the Marxist West Bengal government had neglected his research, and harassed by the strong gynaecologists’ lobby that saw his work as a threat, he had committed suicide in 1981.
Dr Mukherjee’s story is that of a genius. He pioneered in vitro fertilization (IVF) in India with the aid of some general apparatus and a refrigerator in his Kolkata apartment.
He had been drawn to innovative gynaecological surgery from his early days as a medical student. The son of a doctor, he studied at the National Medical College in Kolkata before going to Edinburgh University in the UK for a PhD in reproductive endocrinology. When he returned to India in 1967, he started researching ovulation and spermatogenesis. Within a year, with a team comprising Sunit Mukherji, a cryobiologist, and Saroj Kanti Bhattacharya, a gynaecologist, he announced the birth of the world’s second test-tube baby. The announcement came only 67 days after the British biologist Robert Edwards had announced the birth of the first test-tube baby in England. But unlike his counterpart, Dr Mukherjee had used a method called cryopreservation to preserve the human embryo. And his method is currently the preferred technique of medically assisted reproduction worldwide.
Dr Mukherjee’s achievement was obscured by controversy. The West Bengal government set up an enquiry committee to investigate his breakthrough in 1978. The committee concluded that his claims were bogus, flagging off a cycle of ridicule. He was denied permission to travel to Japan, where he had been invited to discuss his work. In a final act of humiliation, he was transferred to the Regional Institute of Ophthalmology, Kolkata, in June 1981. He killed himself within a few weeks.
Ek Doctor ki Maut (1991), a National Award-winning film made by director Tapan Sinha on Dr Mukherjee’s life with actors Pankaj Kapur and Shabana Azmi, illustrates the vindictiveness of the institutionally backed gynaecologists’ lobby. The governing thread of their campaign against Dr Mukherjee was his lack of documentation.
This is an attack that his collaborator, Dr Mukherji, spiritedly refutes. He says Dr Mukherjee had presented his findings at the International Congress on Hormonal Steroids at New Delhi in 1978; at the Indian Science Congress at Hyderabad in 1979; and had published a paper in the Indian Journal of Cryogenics in 1978. He had even submitted a report, Transfer of In Vitro Fertilized Frozen-thawed Human Embryo, to the West Bengal government.
Eighty-year-old Dr Mukherji, who had grown close to Dr Mukherjee during the course of their work, is still livid as he speaks over the phone from Kolkata. “(The West Bengal government) kept saying that he hadn’t (had) sufficient documentation. What else did they want?” he says. The committee that condemned Dr Mukherjee’s procedure reportedly comprised a gynaecologist, a psychologist, a physicist and a neurologist—none of whom had any knowledge of modern reproductive technology. “He couldn’t handle the politics. He was a scientist, not a lawyer,” says Dr Mukherji, who has edited Architect of India’s First Test-Tube Baby (2001)—a book that chronicles Dr Mukherjee’s work.
Dr Mukherji says he was horrified when, year after year, scientists from across the world were lauded for having masterminded one or the other of the several novel techniques that Dr Mukherjee’s team had already used.
It was Dr Mukherji who got things rolling when he handed over Dr Mukherjee’s diary— which was in his possession—to Dr Kumar, the man who had the courage to research his predecessors’ findings and scientifically present them to the world. As the former director of the Institution of Research in Reproduction at the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), he was also in a position to exonerate Dr Mukherjee of the fraud charges. It was due to Dr Kumar’s efforts, in 2002, that ICMR recognized his work for the first time.
It was also around this time that Kanupriya Agarwal, who is now married and goes by the name Kanupriya Didwania, emerged from anonymity. Nobody had known of her till then. Her parents hailed from a conservative Marwari family in Kolkata and had been introduced to Dr Mukherjee through common friends. Facing social ostracization for being childless for 13 years, they’d decided to try assisted reproduction as a last resort. “Imagine the degree of stigma associated with being childless in 1970s India that prompted even my otherwise conventional parents to undergo what was at that time a high-risk experiment,” says Didwania, who works as a brand manager for Perfetti India, splitting her time between Delhi and Mumbai.
Didwania’s parents weren’t prepared for the media blitz that came with her birth. After several unsavoury exchanges with the press, including intrusive questions about their sex life, they retreated from the public glare completely.
Sometimes, Didwania wonders how different things would have been for Dr Mukherjee if her parents had been more forthcoming. “One can’t blame them though. Somehow my whole family was in the middle of a murky controversy... We were seen as accomplices in a fraud,” she says. Things were so bad that a few days after she was born, Didwania was sent to her grandmother’s place. To maintain her privacy, her grandfather even rustled up a name—“Durga”, since she was born on the first day of Durga Puja. “Everyone forgot in a couple of months. I didn’t grow up with people recognizing me or my name. And I didn’t speak out. It’s not like science is accorded that sort of importance in our country,” says Didwania.
Whatever Didwania’s childhood laments might be, her 25th birthday in 2003—also the 25th anniversary of IVF in India—more than compensated for it. She was flown to Bangalore to be “honoured” at a big conference on IVF that Dr Kumar had organized.
India has an estimated 19-20 million infertile couples, according to the World Health Organisation. Though only 10-15% of them can undergo IVF, it is still a Rs1,000 crore business in India, according to some reports. The recognition for Dr Mukherjee came late but a close circle of friends and supporters are doing their best to secure it for posterity.
Apart from his work in assisted reproduction, Dr Mukherjee was ahead of his time in exploring ways to address family planning and studying transsexuals. Indira Chowdhury, a former archivist at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) in Mumbai, campaigned to include him in the comprehensive Dictionary of Medical Biography published by Greenwood Press in 2006. His works were discussed in detail at an IVF conference organized by the Brazilian Medical Society in Sao Paulo in 2007. Dr Mukherji and several others also set up the Dr Subhas Mukherjee Memorial Reproductive Biology Research Centre in Kolkata a few years ago and they maintain a website that serves as a resource guide to his work: www.drsubhasmukherjee.com
Neither Dr Mukherji nor Dr Mukherjee’s wife, Namita, hold a grudge against the Agarwals for not having spoken out. In fact, Didwania speaks fondly of the two of them as family friends. She recalls how, even after Dr Mukherjee died, Namita would drop by ever so often at the Agarwals’ house to meet “Durga”, her husband’s only child.