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A rebel with “medicine in his veins” becomes a scientific researcher in India

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2007 - Spring


When Manohar V.N. Shirodkar, Med ’54, M.D., initially rebelled against a family tradition and rejected medical practice, his father, a famed gynecologist in Mumbai, India, despaired. The young Shirodkar knew he had “medicine in his veins”—his father had developed the Shirodkar stitch, which is still used to treat cervical incompetence. But Shirodkar wasn’t interested in being a clinician.

Shirodkar, however, found something more exciting—the viral causes of illness. When he learned that his grandmother had died of cervical cancer, Shirodkar was hooked. How did she get sick? Why would she have cancer when others do not? Today, the medical community knows that some types of the human papilloma virus can cause cervical cancer, but at that time the young man simply knew that one way to understand illness was to study oncogenic viruses.

To his father’s delight, Shirodkar begged to study medicine in the United States. After he completed his undergraduate work at Johns Hopkins University, he headed to the Yale School of Medicine in 1950. His clinical studies were interrupted when Shirodkar learned his wife was pregnant. The couple returned to Mumbai, where their daughters, Renée and Diane, were born. With a growing family, Shirodkar didn’t have the funds to complete medical school. He accepted a position at Johns Hopkins’ school of public health, which gave him a stipend to pursue an Sc.D.

His detour from a traditional medical education gave Shirodkar the opportunity he wanted. (He finished his M.B.B.S. in 1970 at the Seth G.S. Medical College in Mumbai.) And throughout a career filled with many twists and turns, his drive to understand viruses remains constant.

As a graduate student at Hopkins in 1958, Shirodkar began investigating the Rous sarcoma virus in chickens, the first virus discovered to cause a solid cancer. His research took him from Hopkins to the Virus Research Center of the Rockefeller Foundation in Pune, India, where he completed his doctoral thesis. In 1978 he found that West Nile virus, and later, rabies, blocked the Rous-produced sarcoma, and that the underlying mediator was not interferon, but his newly discovered anti-sarcoma, antiviral protein, called plasma factor. His research findings appeared in The Journal of Immunology in December 1965, the Journal of General Virology in 1973, The Indian Journal of Medical Research in 1978 and the Indian Journal of Experimental Biology in October 2006.

“The most gratifying aspect of my career,” Shirodkar said, “is the fact that I have been a perpetual student—quite literally—and have been able to pursue, with some success, ... the search for scientific truth.”

As a young man, Shirodkar turned away from a career as a clinician, yet he always admired his father. In 1976, Shirodkar and his wife, Sudha, founded the Dr. V.N. Shirodkar Memorial Research Foundation, an organization that embodies the dreams of both Shirodkar and his father. The organization screens underprivileged women for cervical cancer and investigates novel antiviral biological agents to treat virus diseases.