India mourns loss of 'aristrocratic' & gutsy molecular biology guru

Colleagues and friends remember Obaid Siddiqi as the man who almost single handedly kick started cutting edge research in molecular biology and genetics in India. And who enjoyed hopping from field to field, in times when sticking to one lifelong specialization was the norm. Jaimon Joseph traces the fascinating life of Siddiqi, who passed away on July 26, 2013.

doi:10.1038/nindia.2013.102 Published online 29 July 2013

Obaid Siddiqi (1932-2013)

©Matiur Rahman

"Last year, we celebrated 50 years of biology, at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Bangalore. Since Dr Siddiqi set up the microbiology department, we asked him to deliver a key note address. He came on stage and said not enough people were doing original, path-breaking work. Everyone was just going deeper and deeper into the same old topics."

Shobhana Sharma, Director of the Centre for Microbial Research at TIFR, is not livid at such an abrupt put down, as she recalls her time with Obaid Siddiqi. Instead, she smiles. Through his 60-year professional career, Siddiqi was always brutally honest. And he almost always got his way.

"An aristocratic man with a striking presence — tall, lean and always immediately noticed." That's how Krishnaswamy VijayRaghavan, Secretary to India's Department of Biotechnology remembers him. VijayRaghavan is also Director of the National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bangalore — an offshoot of TIFR Mumbai and an institution that Obaid Siddiqi set up and nourished.

"Obaid was intellectually demanding of himself and of his colleagues. Our scientific debates were often very heated. At the end of it, he was the first to forget the heat and focus on the light. Obaid had strong views on what he knew and challenged others on subjects he was less familiar with. But no matter what his opinions were, he was ready to change them when facts and evidence proved otherwise", he says.

They are talking about a man who almost single handedly kick started cutting edge research into molecular biology and genetics in India. And who enjoyed hopping from field to field, in an age where sticking to one lifelong specialisation was the norm.

Obaid Siddiqi helped discover the genes that trigger taste and smell in the tiny Drosophila or fruit fly and mutations which affect electrical activity in their nerves and muscles. This later triggered a spate of international research on how genes affect sensory perception, learning and memory. But he began his career as a botanist, experimenting with disease resistant wheat at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute in New Delhi.

In an interview given years ago to veteran science communicator Matiur Rehman, he said "In the 1950s there was hardly any genetics being done in India. In 1953, the DNA structure was discovered and professors gave us lectures, but we hardly understood anything. But I was excited because it was a formal science, unlike simple botany, where most of your time is spent learning nomenclature and taxonomy."

By a stroke of providence, his test bed of wheat cross-breeds, carefully nurtured over a year at IARI Delhi, was destroyed in a hail storm in 1954. In a funk, he talked to M S Swaminathan, father of the Indian Green Revolution, who was then at IARI. "Dr Swaminathan said to me — I know your interests. And perhaps its time you go to a place where you can pursue what your real interests are. That set me thinking", says Siddiqi in that rare interview.

By 1958, Siddiqi caught a flight to Glasgow, to work on his PHD with geneticist Guido Pontecorvo. By 1961, he was at the University of Pennsylvania, researching bacterial genetics with Alan Garen. He was getting noticed, as one of the young stars of an emerging field. At Garen's laboratory, Siddiqi caught the eye of Leo Szilard, an enormously respected American scientist. Szilard shot off a letter to Homi Bhabha, who was setting up TIFR in India, as an outpost for cutting edge physics research.

VijayRaghavan tells the story in a beautifully written blog :

Szilard writes to Bhabha, "The enclosed letter of a distinguished colleague of mine, Alan Garen of the University of Pennsylvania, is self explanatory. The second enclosed letter is from Pontecorvo, a distinguished geneticist and whom you may know and relates to the same subject matter. I should be grateful to you for reading these two letters and following it up which such action, which appears appropriate in the circumstances. I regret that our paths haven't crossed for a long time... With kindest regards."

Bhabha writes back to Obaid saying "I've received a letter regarding you from a friend, Szilard. I am very interested in personally supporting work in Molecular Biology... We should give you an appropriate offer of appointment either at the Tata's Institute of Fundamental Research or the Atomic Energy Establishment of Bombay, the Biology division. I should be grateful if you send your CV. We usually ask for several letters of recommendation but those have already arrived so don't bother too much about that and if you want to know anything, just let me know".

At the Molecular Biology Unit at TIFR, Siddiqi established a small but strong bacterial genetics group. Their work, de-linking DNA transfer, DNA replication and recombination in bacteria was widely recognized. But simultaneously, Siddiqi was also slowly becoming a legend — keeping his students in thrall, while often frustrating his colleagues.

A young Obaid in his lab.

© Matiur Rahman

"He was one of the handsomest professors on campus", reminisces Shobhana Sharma, then a student. "He was extremely active, playing tennis and cricket regularly. At night, post 9.30 pm, we students would play music on the radio — that was the only way we knew to relax. Often, Dr Siddiqi would grumpily complain about the noise. But more often, he'd simply walk in and hang out. And we'd all discuss the music together, for hours", she says.

But while he was very chilled out with his students, he could be frosty with his contemporaries. "In the late 1980's", says Sharma, "the microbiology department requisitioned an entire floor at TIFR for its use. The management, quite naturally, asked Dr Siddiqi what he intended to do with all that space. He refused to explain."

"It's my decision", he said. "If you don't like my decision, you can get yourself a new head for the department. But I'm not going to explain every little thing I do." The management backed off.

He often behaved quite the same way with bureaucrats or scientist-politicians who might have tried to regulate his work at TIFR or NCBS. Says Maharaj Kishan Bhan Bhan, former secretary to India's Department of Bioechnology, "He belonged to a generation of scientists who believed government bureaucracy didn't do much to promote excellence in science. They had an inherent resistance to mindless interference — be it in the appointment of directors, or faculty or in fund allocation". But that doesn't mean they were rebels without a cause. These scientists lived and breathed excellence. Their competition was always themselves, their goal was always perfection."

But at home, Obaid Siddiqi was a decidedly more relaxed man. "He played the Sarod — he'd been practicing for years, says Imran Siddiqi, Obaid's eldest son. "He was a fan of Ali Akbar Khan. He adored Hindustani classical music. He was in love with singers like Pt. Bhimsen and Amir Khan."

Imran himself won an Infosys award in 2011 for his research in the genetics of high yielding crops. But he insists Siddiqi never thrust science on any of his children. "We were allowed to do just as we pleased. I was a chemist, before I came into genetics. Both my sisters are into education and cultural studies. They've dabbled in anthropology, photography and social work. My younger brother is a computer scientist in Canada. Yes, we're all into academics. But not because our father forced us into anything".

As Imran talks about his father, one slowly realizes the true scope of Siddiqi's interests and talents. "He was fluent in both Arabic and Persian. He studied both for thirteen years — back when he was kid and when Maulvis came home to teach their students", says Imran. He was an ardent reader of philosophy. "Rumi, Khusro, Ghalib — the books are still littered all over the house. He kept poring through them".

"We students used to call him Guruji", sighs Sharma. "It was partly a jibe, because he was so self assured about everything under the sun. He knew we called him that. But he never really minded."

VijayRaghavan says he learnt some golden lessons from the man. "Obaid taught me that science is fun. And to enjoy it fully we must keep the company of smart and lively people, abjure pomposity. And always question ourselves and question authority".