Bacteriologist Who Discovered Cholera Enterotoxin: Dr. Sambhu Nath De

Dr. Sambhu Nath De was a bacteriologist. Bacteriologists study bacteria linked with human diseases and help understand the bacteria-disease relationship. This knowledge is then used by other scientists to develop better treatments and vaccines. 

Dr. S.N. De is best known for his discovery of the toxin produced by Vibrio Cholerae, the bacteria that causes Cholera, which caused many pandemics and killed millions. His path-breaking discovery changed the long-held scientific outlook on cholera and its treatment, shifting the focus to preventing and treating dehydration rather than antibiotics. 

Image Credit: A Sen and J K Sarkar

Like many other Indian medical researchers of 1950s, Dr. S. N. De also had a humble background, and but for various scholarships, it would have impossible for him to complete his medical education from the Calcutta medical college. He had interested in neglected tropical diseases and completed a diploma in tropical medicine before embarking on a research-driven career that took him to London to complete his Ph.D. He returned to Calcutta after his Ph.D. and joined another medical college in a teaching cum research position where he would continue his journey till retirement.

Through his experiments, Dr. S.N De was able to produce the first successful animal model to study cholera. He demonstrated that cholera was the result of a toxin, and unlike most bacterial toxins, the toxin of Vibrio Cholerae was not an endotoxin that is absorbed into the blood. Instead, he found that the toxin remained in the intestine and acted locally on the epithelial cells blocking the absorption of water. His findings were truly revolutionary and challenged the almost dogmatic beliefs regarding endotoxins that were long-held and were proposed by legendary bacteriologists of that time such as Robert Koch. His findings were published in the most prestigious journals and underwent critical review before ultimately getting accepted by the global scientific community. His discovery caused a paradigm shift in bacteriology as well as the clinical management of cholera that now shifted on preventing and correcting the dehydration.

For this contribution to the advancement of our understanding of cholera, Dr S. N. De was nominated twice for the Nobel Prize by none other than the famous American bacterial-genetics specialist Dr. J. Lederberg, who also penned an article on the impact of Dr. De's experiments and findings in which he acknowledged his contribution toward breaking the dogma surrounding the existence of endotoxin of Vibrio Cholerae.  Although Dr. De missed the Nobel prize, he was invited by the Nobel committee as a speaker in the Nobel Symposium on Cholera and Related Diarrhoeas

In an article, Dr. JP Craig another eminent American medical scientist credited him for his approach to shun the conventional experimental methods and adopt an organ-tissue-cell based approach in bacteriological research. According to another tribute to him by researchers from the National Institute of Cholera and Enteric Diseases, the success of oral rehydration therapy that has been described as one of the most important medical advances was a direct outcome of Dr. De's discovery of cholera enterotoxin.

However, the contributions of Dr. De were not recognized by the Indian scientific community during his lifetime. It was only after his death that his contributions were appreciated in India that too after an article in his appreciation was authored by none other than Dr. Eugene Garfield, the information scientist who created the bibliometrics such as science citation index. In that article, Dr. Garfield noted that Dr. De did not receive any major scientific awards and was never elected to any of the Indian science academies and could be identified as a typical case of delayed recognition. Many of the tributes to Dr. De continue to address him as an unsung hero of Indian medical science. 


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About the author: Dr. Naval Asija is a licensed MBBS Physician from India. MBBS is the equivalent of the MD degree offered by international medical schools. He is based in Delhi, India, and works as a medical writer, editor, and consultant. He supports medical researches as an author's editor, medical communication companies involved in medico-marketing activities, and medical technology companies in improving their products. He can be contacted via his LinkedIn Profile: https://www.linkedin.com/in/navalasija/
Journey of a non clinical doctor



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