Vol. 5 Num 43 Fri. July 09, 2004  

A tribute to Prof Kamaluddin

Professor Kamaluddin Ahmad, the pioneer of the study of biochemistry and nutrition in Bangladesh and an internationally renowned scientist, passed away following a cardiac arrest on July 4 in Manila, Philippines.

A brilliant scientist and scholar of indomitable energy and wide interests, Professor Ahmad combined an uncanny knack in scientific research with building institutions of scientific learning in the country.

He is best known for having founded and developing the departments of biochemistry and pharmacy and the Institute of Nutrition and Food Science at the University of Dhaka.

He was a leader of the scientific community at large, having served, among others, as the first president of the Bangladesh Association for Advancement of Science as well as president of the Bangladesh Academy of Sciences. For years, he led the Bangladesh Biochemical Society as well as the Nutrition Society. He was elected a Fellow of the Third World Academy of Sciences in Trieste, Italy.

Professor Ahmad was deeply moved when he witnessed on a visit to the northern districts of Bangladesh the scourge of the crippling disease of lathyrism. Research on lathyrism was restrained by scientists' inability to produce the disease in experimental animals. Professor Ahmad soon produced the first experimental case of lathyrism in animals and demonstrated that vitamin C supplementation could prevent the dreaded disease. When the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Wisconsin, USA, convened a special symposium to celebrate its 100 founding anniversary, it invited some of its most illustrious alumni, including several Nobel Prize winners. Professor Ahmad was invited to discuss his groundbreaking work on vitamin C and lathyrism at this gathering.

When arsenic contamination engulfed Bangladesh, Dr Ahmad, long retired from the University of Dhaka, returned to his laboratories. He noted that, in human body, arsenic first accumulates in hair and fingers and toenails, and began to develop a promising therapy for chronic arsenic poisoning -- a work that sadly remains unfinished.

He was the discoverer of Ramnacin, named after the old Ramna ground around which he spent almost all of his professional life, the first crystalline antibiotic from the Indian sub-continent, and of numerous other drugs derived from plant products for cure of diseases such as shigellosis -- a particularly virulent form of diarrhoea.

After he retired from the University of Dhaka, he founded and served as research director of the Bangladesh Institute of Herbal Medicine. He argued that scientifically developed natural drugs could be hugely effective in the treatment of illnesses at a price the poor could afford.

He received many accolades throughout his life. In 1960 at a fairly young age, he was feted as the 'Best University Professor' in a Pride of Performance Award from the then president of Pakistan. In 1970, he was given the honour of Sithara Khidmat by the then president of Pakistan.

Professor Ahmad was born in Gohira, Chittagong on September 1, 1923 to a humble family. His father died when Kamaluddin Ahmad was only 16, leaving no obvious guardian or much by way of property or money. It is through sheer brilliance, hard work and a lot of merit scholarships that he pursued his education, often sending some small savings from his scholarship money to his family still in the village. He graduated with a first class first in chemistry from the University of Dhaka and then earned a Master's in chemistry, again with a first class first and a gold medal for extraordinary scores.

As the Second World War was drawing to a close, he sailed on a war ship then converted to civilian use from Bombay to San Francisco en route to Madison, Wisconsin. There he easily earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry at the University of Wisconsin in less than three years, having discovered and published a new and highly elegant election transport method for Antimycin-A in the American Journal of Chemistry.

The remarkable life of Professor Kamaluddin Ahmad is a testament to the boundless possibilities of talent, however deprived its condition of origin may be.

Professor Kamaluddin Ahmad