Indian Journal of Pathology and Microbiology

: 2015  |  Volume : 58  |  Issue : 1  |  Page : 134--136

Tribute: Dr. Sambhu Nath De: One of the Greatest Indian Scientists

Shanta Dutta1, Surojit Das1, AK Nandy2, Subir K Dutta3,  
1 Division of Bacteriology, National Institute of Cholera and Enteric Diseases, Kolkata, West Bengal, India
2 Institute of Child Health, Kolkata, West Bengal, India
3 Department of Pathology, University College of Medicine, University of Calcutta, Kolkata, West Bengal, India

Correspondence Address:
Prof. Subir K Dutta
2, Ram Chandra Das Row, Kolkata - 700 013, West Bengal

How to cite this article:
Dutta S, Das S, Nandy A K, Dutta SK. Tribute: Dr. Sambhu Nath De: One of the Greatest Indian Scientists.Indian J Pathol Microbiol 2015;58:134-136

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Dutta S, Das S, Nandy A K, Dutta SK. Tribute: Dr. Sambhu Nath De: One of the Greatest Indian Scientists. Indian J Pathol Microbiol [serial online] 2015 [cited 2021 Apr 12 ];58:134-136
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Name of Dr. S. N. De in the history of cholera was obscure for his scientific contribution but was prominent for humanity. Paying tribute to Dr. De is for reclamation of his recognition he deserved for a long time and reminds the entire fraternity of cholera researchers about his immense scientific contribution by the discovery of "The ligated ileal loops of rabbit to demonstrate luminal fluid accumulation by Vibrio cholerae culture filtrate." This has initiated many more important studies like role of cholera toxin in pathogenesis, cellular physiology, biochemistry and immunology of the disease. Although the bacillus was discovered by Robert Koch in 1884, it was only after his discovery of cholera toxin in 1959, V. chlolerae became the best studied pathogen at the molecular level. This novel approach had an immense public health impact, which was realized many years after its actual discovery.

 Early Life

We are extremely honored describing the life sketch and scientific contribution of Dr. SambhuNath De, popularly known as Dr. S. N De, one of the greatest scientists in India and paying our tribute to his life time scientific achievement. Dr. S. N De was born in 1915in Garibati Village, Hooghly District, West Bengal, India. His father, Dashurathi De and mother Chatteswari belonged to the middle class family. After the death of his grandfather at an early age, Dr. De's father, the elder son of the family, took the charge of entire family by working as a shop assistant and later running a small business, which did not flourish in course of time. De, being the eldest child was brought up with much care and affection. His uncle, the only educated member of the family, instilled the academic interest in him which helped to build his later educational career. From Garibati high school, he passed the matriculation examination with distinction, which enabled him to study at the Hooghly Mohsin College with a scholarship. De was selected to study in the Calcutta Medical College (CMC) due to his excellent result in inter-science examination by securing DPI scholarship. During the period, this meritorious student was generously helped by Sri K. C. Seth, a local gentleman, by providing him free lodging and boarding in Calcutta. Later De shifted to the college hostel by securing free studentship and college scholarship.

De's performance drew the attention of his reverend teachers especially Prof. M. N De, Department of Pathology and Bacteriology, a well-known researcher of that time. He was impressed by the research aptitude, excellent performance, and modest nature of the young, bright student. He negotiated marriage of his elder daughter, Torubala, with S. N. De despite wide differences in social and financial status between the two families. De passed the MB examination in 1939 from CMC and obtained Diploma in Tropical Medicine in 1942. Soon after graduation, he joined the Pathology Department of CMC as a demonstrator in 1942. During this time, he initiated his research under Prof. B. P Trivedi and published few papers jointly with him on various topics. He had to carry on private practice as well to support the burden of his family of parents, minor brothers and sisters.

 Academic Career

Dr. M. N de, his father in law played a pivotal role in building his future career. He arranged admission of Dr. S. N De to work under guidance of Prof. G. R Cameron, FRS (later Sir Roy Cameron) of the University of London in 1947 on the topic "changes in the brain by experimental hydrocephalus." He faced some problem in conducting the experiment due to sudden death of the experimental animal by development of pulmonary edema, which was an accidental finding. He published two articles on pulmonary edema and was awarded Ph.D degree of the London University in 1949 on the topic "pulmonary edema and experimental hydrocephalus". Dr. De's contact with Prof. Cameron continued till the last days of Sir Roy, who acted as his mentor, friend and guide all in one.

He came back to Kolkata in 1949 with a complete change in outlook towards research. He started working on the pathogenesis of cholera before he joined the service at Nil Ratan Sarkar (NRS) Medical College. His first paper was communicated with one of his former colleagues (J.K.S) of CMC on the action of cholera toxin in 1951. In the preface of the book "Cholera", he wrote that while working in the University College of London, he conceived the idea of working on patho-physiology of Cholera. As a result, when he took up the charge as professor in the Department of Pathology, NRS Medical College, cholera was his chief area of interest. Then a number of cholera cases used to get admitted to the attached Hospital. He published a number of papers during 1950-1955 on pathological changes of kidney in cholera.

 Research on Cholera and Significance of De's Contribution

In the paper published in 1951, Dr. De suggested that the toxic appearance of the cholera patients suggested that the disease is primarily due to intoxication. The organisms multiply, undergo lysis and liberate the endotoxin in the gut lumen leading to huge outpouring and accumulation of fluid in the intestine causing symptoms of acute watery diarrhea. It was a new and bold decision during that period. De made significant contributions to our recent understanding of cholera and related diarrheal diseases and set a permanent milestone in the pathogenesis of the diseases caused by bacterial exotoxins. There was no suitable animal model available for studying cholera during that time. However in 2 years by 1953, De was successful in developing an animal model for reproducing the disease which has been reported in an epoch-making scientific article. This paper has been designated as citation classic in Current Contents of February 9, 1987 and received 1955 citations. In recognition to his work, he received 3 rd Dr. B. C. Roy Memorial oration award at the Calcutta Medical Club. De himself wrote that the success opened up research in the area of enterotoxins of V. cholereae and related organisms.

However, the international scientific community took time to accept such a simple animal model that solved the specific problem, which was eluding them for a long time. Years later, he had developed the rabbit intestinal loop model, which also received severe criticism and queries from scientists abroad ranging from outright rejection to various drawback of the model. According to Dr. De, V. cholera has been promoted to the rank of exotoxin producing organism. It has taken 75 years for cholera exotoxin to be discovered in 1959 after the organism was initially discovered by Robert Koch in 1884.

In 1955, De went to England with a Nuffield Foundation-Royal Society Bursery and presented his work on V. cholerae and Escherichia coli before the Pathological Society of Great Britain, which was highly appreciated. In the same year Dr. De joined CMC as Professor Director of Pathology and Bacteriologist to the Government of West Bengal. He came closer to many eminent personalities like Dr. D. Barua, his old colleague Dr. J. K. Sarkar and a number of young research workers. During this time, in spite of his heavy work load in teaching and administrative duties at CMC, he continued his research work at the Bose Institute since 1954, where facilities for toxin isolation were present and he worked as an honorary worker with relentless energy and interest. His aim was to isolate the toxin to prepare toxoid, which could be effective against cholera.

De's hypothesis of understanding pathogenesis of cholera was distinctly different from approaches of other researchers. Three of his work worth highlighting e.g. ligated intestinal loop method (which was also invented by Violle and Crendiropoulo in 1915, but De was unaware of the work and made one independent discovery) in rabbit model, ileal loop model to demonstrate the association of some strain of toxin producing E. coli (enterotoxigenic E. coli) with cholera like diarrhea and lastly but most importantly in 1959 in bacteria free culture filtrate of V. cholerae that stimulated a specific cellular response. Detailed properties of the exotoxins from the culture filtrate and the endotoxin were reported in the subsequent years.

The discovery of exotoxin promoted a new paradigm in research on cholera into diverse areas and in finding a treatment aimed directly at neutralizing the cholera exotoxin. His discovery brought him international recognition and acclamation; although back home in India his work remained unsung and unnoticed. As noted by John Craig, State University of New York Health Science Centre at Brooklyn, De's work "forever altered our concepts surrounding the pathogenesis of secretory diarrhea." Nobel laureate Prof. Joshua Lederberg stated that De's clinical observations concluded that dehydration is the lead cause of cholera pathogenesis, which is able to take the toll of a patient by massive secretion of water into the bowel. Therefore replenishing the fluid loss by oral rehydration therapy (ORT) in cholera patients would save many lives. Success of ORT has been described as one of the 20 th century's most important medical advances and this view is considered as a direct outcome of De's discovery of cholera toxin. Later on his findings led to purification of cholera (CT) and heat labile (LT) enterotoxins in the development of cholera and ETEC vaccines.

By 1963-64 the hyper toxin producing classical strains of V. cholerae O1, on which De has worked, was abruptly replaced by El Tor biotype (producing less cholera toxin), which was prevalent in S. E. Asia, but no epidemic and no cholera death has been reported in Calcutta in 1979. Dr. De was forced to discontinue his work as there was no equipment for preserving the strains freeze dried and soon lost all interest in cholera. However, he continued to publish papers on cholera, the El Tor biotype and on other topics. Meanwhile, he visited England in 1960 with a Welcome Foundation Fellowship and again for the last time in 1962, to receive the D.Sc. degree in physiology of the London University. But, he was disheartened due to lack of proper recognition of this work. A rude shock came with the death of Sir Roy Cameron in 1966, his constant source of inspiration and encouragement.

 Post Retirement

De retired from CMC at the age of 58 in 1973. He was not interested to continue for another 2 years as an extension and joining the post of Principal of the college. Post retirement he continued his research at the Bose Institute to purify the cholera toxin, which did not progress further because of the circumstances beyond his control. Being frustrated he started private practice by establishing a clinical pathological laboratory in his residence to keep himself occupied. In 1978, the Nobel Foundation invited De to attend the 43 rd Nobel Symposium on Cholera and related diarrheas and to deliver his views.

De passed away on 15 April, 1985 at the age of 70. His ambition was to create a better world to live in through his selfless services in the medical field. A few hours before his death, when he was in a state of coma, a letter arrived from the Editor, Indian Journal of technology, requesting him to contact with Eugene Garfield, Editor of Current Contents who was interested to know his professional contribution. But De could not respond to his request. Garfield paid a tribute to Dr. De by publishing an article entitled "mapping of cholera and impact of Dr. SambhuNath De" in the Current Contents of April 7, 1986. His pioneer work paved the way to more effective strategy for treatment and control of cholera. A special issue of the Journal of Current Science (Bangalore, India), was published in 1990 in honor of Dr. De, to which several eminent scientist of national and international repute contributed.

 Personal Attribute

Dr. De emerged, in the retrospect as a modest, unassuming, self-effacing and hardworking scientist motivated by inner compulsion to handle with major scientific problems of the time. De was not the type who enjoyed large gatherings, public focus, seminars and conferences. He remained happy in a small and intimate circle of friends and colleagues who were almost like his family members. Though he never practiced medicine, but he had an amazing clinical eye that helped many patients to diagnose and cure their illness. De's story of perseverance, dedication and achievement should be an inspiration to many future researchers who were bewildered by the current fashion of Mega projects with surprisingly little scientific outcome.


Major portion of the life history as well as photograph of Dr. S. N. De were obtained from reference: Sen A, Sarkar J. K. Life and work of SambhuNath De. Curr Sci 1990;59:630-36. In the Special issue on S. N. De and cholera enterotoxin. Curr Sci 1990;59:623-714.