Lives of the fellows

Vulimiri Ramalingaswami

b. 8 August 1921 d. 28 May 2001
MB BS Andhra Pradesh(1944) MD(1946) DPhil Oxon(1951) DSc(1967) FRCP FRCPath FACP FRS

Vulimiri Ramalingaswami (‘Rama’) was an eminent pathologist and nutrition scientist who became the director of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIMS) at an early age. Later he was director general of the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) from which position he managed to persuade the Indian government that the national problem of goitre could be solved by fortifying common salt with iodine.

Born to an orthodox Brahmin family in Srikalkalam, Andhra Pradesh, South India, his parents were V Gumpaswami and V Sundaramma. His father was a civil servant. Many of his family were teachers and his paternal grandfather, after whom he was named and who was a strong influence on him, had a degree in English literature from Madras University and was headmaster of the most prestigious grammar school in the region. Ramalingaswami studied medicine at Andhra Medical College, Vishkapatnam, qualifying MB BS in 1944 and MD in 1946. He then winning a scholarship to Oxford University where he was awarded the DPhil in 1951 and the DSc in 1967.

Returning to India in 1947, he began his lifelong research into the causes and mechanisms of the diseases prevalent in developing countries at the Nutrition Research Laboratory (NRL) in Coonoor in the Nilgiris (now the National Institute of Nutrition, Hyderabad). His research covered protein-energy malnutrition, iodine deficiency disorders, nutritional anaemia and liver diseases in the tropics. In 1969 he was appointed director of the AIMS and professor of pathology. He stayed there for 10 years and worked hard to develop an excellent school of pathology attracting many brilliant students. During this time his expertise in nutritional deficiency was put to good use in the great Bihar famine of 1967 and during the Bangladesh war of 1970 to 1971 when millions of refugees needed food and rehabilitation.

When the Indian Council of Medical Research was looking for a new director general, he was the obvious choice. Appointed in 1979, he remained in post for seven years and enlarged its activities in many directions, ranging from introducing a new system of rigorous peer review for all research programmes to setting up regional medical research centres to tackle local problems in far-flung areas.

A prolific author, many of his papers are classics in their field. While he was at the NRL he studied the incidence of goitre in a population of over 100,000 people in the Kangra Valley. He discovered that merely adding potassium iodate to common salt caused a drastic reduction in the disease. He wrote, with T A Subramanian and M G Deo, ‘The aetiology of Himalayan endemic goitre’ (Lancet, 1961, 1, 791-4) and his work led to the foundation of the National Iodine Deficiency Control Programme which has been a huge benefit to public health. His contributions to the pathophysiology of protein-energy malnutrition he published as ‘Perspectives in protein malnutrition’ (Nature, 1964, 201, 546-51) and ‘Interface of protein nutrition and medicine in the tropics’ (Lancet, 1969, 2, 733-5).

Further important contributions he made to the health of his, and other, poor nations included the introduction of iron supplements for pregnant women to improve their health and that of their babies, and the discovery of a new syndrome of liver disease known as Indian Childhood Cirrhosis. He was also actively involved in organising the recovery operation after the disastrous explosion at Bhopal.

After retirement he continued to participate in various international medical organisations, including a time as a special advisor to the World Health Organization and five years with the United Nations Children’s Fund. He was a Fogarty fellow, and later special professor of toxicology at Harvard. President of the Indian Academy of Sciences from 1979 to 1980, he received numerous awards and honorary fellowships including, in the UK, becoming a fellow of the Royal Society and the Royal Colleges of Physicians and Pathologists. The Karolinska Institute in Sweden awarded him an honorary doctorate.

When he was a student he had been a keen amateur actor and he was also a talented singer.

He was survived by his wife, Surya Prabha, who had been a professor in the Centre for Social Medicine and Community Health at the Jawahar Lal Nehru University in New Delhi, and their family. Both his children qualified in medicine and his son, V Jagadish, was chairman of the South Asia Against Aids agency in Bethesda, Maryland and his daughter, Lakshmi, worked at the Mount Sinai Hospital in New York.

RCP editor

[Wikipedia - accessed 28 March 2015; Curr sci 2001 80 1599 - accessed 28 March 2015; Indian National Science Academy Platinum Jubilee - accessed 28 March 2015]

(Volume XII, page web)

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