Gopalasamudram Narayana Ramachandran (or simply
GNR to those who knew him well) is one of those few scientists who
have made India proud by their research. He had many lucrative assignments
for doing research in the advanced western countries but like his
mentor, C.V. Raman, he decided to work in India against all odds.
He was one of the most brilliant Indian scientists of the 20th century.
He made several important discoveries in molecular biophysics, especially
in the study of protein structure. The discovery of triple helical
structure of collagen was a fundamental advance in the understanding
of peptide structure. "The Ramachandran phi-psi plot"
or simply the "Ramachandran Plot" has become a standard
description of protein structures in text books. When Ramachandran
was doing research in biophysics in India the subject was just taking
shape in the advanced countries and undoubtedly he was a pioneer
in this field. He started two centres of molecular biophysics, first
at the University of Madras, Chennai and second at the Indian Institute
of Science, Bangalore. Both the centres became internationally recognised
centres for research in biophysics. He inspired a large number of
young people to take up science, who made significant contribution
in various aspects of biophysics. He had a deep interest in philosophy
and in classical Indian and western music. He interpreted the philosophical
ideas of Syaad Nyaan, 'the doctrine of may be', an age-old system
in Jain philosophy, in mathematical form which he called 'Boolean
Vector Matrix Formulation'. Besides being an accomplished great
scientist he was a very good speaker. He could easily present highly
complicated concepts in simple words which could be understood even
by high school students. These days we hardly find such a scientist
particularly in India. By any standards he was a superb teacher.
He wrote poems on science, religion, philosophy and the Upanishads.
He made exemplary donations to charitable institutions.
Ramachandran was born on October 8,1922 in Ernakulam
near Cochin in Kerala. Ramachandran was the eldest son of G.R. Narayana
lyer and Lakshmi Ammal. At the time of his birth, Cochin was ruled
by a Maharajah, who had full autonomy under the British Government.
The Maharajah of Cochin was an enlightened ruler, under whose aegis
educational and cultural institutes thrived. For higher education
Cochin had a college known as the Maharajah's College . His father
was a well-known professor of mathematics and he retired as the
Principal of Maharajah's College. To quote Ramachandran on his father
: "Because of his ability and thoroughness he became the most
senior and respected member of the department and retired as the
Principal. He had a very sharp mind in mathematics and he used to
teach me mathematics. I had been exposed to most of the theories
in analytical geometry even before I went to college. When I was
in high school, he would bring books on mathematics from the library
and give me some challenging theorem to prove every day. He would
write equations and ask me to solve them. He was a wizard in mathematics".
So no wonder that Ramachandran would develop a deep interest in
mathematics since his childhood. We are told that as a school student
he used to get a perfect score of 100 on all his mathematics examinations.
After the Intermediate Examination, in which he stood first in the
entire Madras State, Ramachandran joined the St. Joseph's College
in Trichy in 1939. Here he enrolled himself in the BSc (Honours)
degree in physics. Among the teachers in St. Joseph's College who
stimulated Ramachandran's interest in physics were P.E. Subramaniam
and a Jesuit priest, Father Rajam. Ramachandran stood first among
all the physics honours students in the entire Madras Presidency.
Ramachandran's father, Narayana Iyer, wanted his
son to take up the Indian Civil Service Examination. However, Narayana
Iyer failed to persuade his son in doing so. He then sent Ramachandran
to Delhi to take the Indian Railway Engineering Service Examination.
But even this was not liked by Ramachandran. It is said that he
deliberately performed poorly in the entrance examination to ensure
that he was not selected. After this digression Ramachandran joined
the Electrical Engineering Department of the Indian Institute of
Science, Bangalore, for his MSc degree. However, soon he realised
that his interests lay in physics and so he decided to switch over
to it. It is very likely that his decision might have been influenced
by the fact that at that time the legendary Prof. C.V. Raman was
the Director of the Institute as well as the Head of the Department
of Physics. Knowing Ramachandran's interest, Prof. Raman requested
the head of the Electrical Engineering Department to allow Ramachandran
to join the Physics Department. However, when the request was persistently
refused, Raman told the Head of the Electrical Engineering Department:
"I am admitting Ramachandran into my department as he is a
bit too bright to be in yours..." And in this way Ramachandran
not only came to the physics department but he eventually became
the most distinguished of Raman's students. Ramachandran was deeply
influenced by C.V. Raman. The other two scientists who influenced
Ramachandran were William Lawrence Bragg (1890-1978) and Linus Carl
To know a little about how he started his research
career in the Indian Institute of Science and what he thought about
Raman, we quote Ramachandran : "Raman knew that I understood
principles of optics. He gave me a very important problem. This
problem has been treated earlier by Raleigh- Jeans. Raman gave me
Raleigh's paper and a book pertaining to this problem. In one day
I was able to write the equation to the problem and work out the
solutions. I was horrified to see the solution containing several
hyperbolic sines and cosines. I had seen it before and I went to
the library and found this volume with several formulas and equations.
I was very pleased to find completely corresponding equations and
solutions in that book. I wrote a very rigorous proof and showed
it to Raman. He was so pleased. He said we should publish the results,
this was within one week of my joining Raman. That was a very useful
result, which I used twenty years later in studying crystal perfection
and the difference between mosaic and perfect crystals."
"Raman recommended me for a scholarship of
60 rupees a month. But the administrators of the Institute said
that I had to have a master's degree. Raman said, 'Don't worry about
it, I will give you a fellowship of 130 rupees a month, you get
an associateship degree from the Institute.' There were no courses
to take, only research. The degree awarded was called A.I.I.Sc.
I was in charge of setting up an X-ray diffraction unit, it was
a demountable X-ray tube."
"In the Institute I used to give lectures
on crystallography, starting with symmetry. I studied crystallography
all by myself. I studied a book on group theory, and it became very
useful throughout, particularly in my work on logic. There were
very few books on group theory and this book was by Herman Weyl.
That changed my whole attitude to science" .
"Raman had great respect for students who
were better than him in mathematics. He gave me another problem
to study the scattering of light by small particles, 3 or 4 times
the wavelength of the radiation used."
"Raman had ten to fifteen students working
under him. He was a virtuoso, and each student was working on a
different problem. Raman tried to bring famous scientists from abroad
and he even tried to get a faculty position for Max Born, who was
a visiting professor in his department. He wanted Erwin Schrodingerto
come to India. This was a time when many scientists were leaving
Germany. At that time Raman was the Director of the Institute, but
after the first three years, the administrators of the Institute
told him: 'We don't want you'.
" Ramachandran obtained his MSc degree in
1944 from the Madras University. In those days the Indian Institute
of Science was not a degree granting institution. Students working
there had to submit their theses for a degree from one of the other
universities of India. Ramachandran's thesis for his MSc degree
contained the result of the theoretical and experimental investigation
that he carried out on the propagation of light through optically
heterogeneous media. The external examiner of his thesis was Prof.
K.S. Krishnan, who was then professor of physics at the University
of Allahabad. After obtaining his master degree Ramachandran continued
his research work for a doctoral degree under the supervision of
Prof. Raman. His doctoral research involved photo-elasticity and
thermo-optic behavior of different solids such as diamond, fused
quartz, fluorspar and zinc blende. Research publications resulting
from his doctoral work contained some of the earliest applications
of X- ray diffractions to the study of variation in perfection of
crystals. He also coined the term 'topograph' for such pictures.
It should be emphasised that the research paper published carried
his name as the single author and did not include Raman's name.
These days hardly any research scholar, particularly in India, will
be allowed to do the same.
Ramachandran obtained his Doctor of Science (DSc)
degree in 1947 and decided to go to Cambridge in England to work
in the Cavendish Laboratory, where Sir William Lawrence Bragg was
the Director. Ramachandran succeeded in getting a prestigious scholarship
for higher studies in England provided by the Royal Commissioners
of the 1851 Exhibition. As he had already studied X-ray diffraction
for his doctoral work in the Indian Institute of Science he easily
became a part of the Cavendish group of crystallographers. However,
he could not get the opportunity to work directly under Lawrence
Bragg. He was assigned to work with Dr. W. A. Wooster.
In Cambridge, Ramachandran decided to work again
for a doctoral degree. While explaining why he chose to work for
a second doctoral degree in Cambridge, Ramachandran said : "In
1947 I went to Cambridge, England, to work in the Cavendish Laboratory
with Dr. Wooster. Dr. Taylor was the head of the crystallography
group. I did not attach myself to any College in Cambridge and I
was in Fritzwilliam House. I did not like to wear those gowns like
the ones the undergraduates were expected to do. I decided to work
for a doctoral degree because then there would be something to show
for my work; simply getting a few publications does not impress
authorities in India. My decision may have definitely helped me
in getting my first job in Madras..." Ramachandran considered
his stay in Cambridge quite fruitful. He said : "Going and
staying for two years in Cambridge did a lot of good things for
my research. I attended Dirac's tourse on Principles of Quantum
Mechanics...Most students, in Dirac's class were undergraduates
who weresecond-or-third year physics majors. He used matrices and
tensors a lot. Later I used the same symbols in my mathematical
treatment of logic. Whatever I tried to design for my experiments
could not easily be implemented because there was no suitable engineering
programme in Cambridge University." In Cambridge he also met
Linus Pauling for the first time. This was a great moment for young
Ramachandran, at the time he was 25 years old. For Ramachandran,
Pauling was a great hero, who had just discovered the alpha helical
structure of polypetides. Moreover Ramachandran's vision of chemistry
was shaped by reading Pauling's books and articles. Ramachandran
admired Pauling throughout his life. He even dedicated a poem to
Pauling. Ramachandran wrote a number of poems on scientific concepts.
We quote below two stanzas from the poem that he dedicated to Pauling.
Is a name to conjure with,
In chemical bonding
And whatever forthwith
Follows for all matter,
Both inanimate and alive
Their nature and character
And how they will behave.
His great alpha helix,
That opened the path
For the solution of structures
Of all biopolymers,
Is a star that will adorn
The firmament of Science,
For it has revealed to biologists
Completely new ways.
In Cambridge, Ramachandran worked in three projects
- instrumentation, electronics and the development of a mathematical
theory to study diffuse X-ray diffraction, and use it in determining
the elastic constants of crystals.
After finishing his doctoral work in Cambridge
he returned to India in June of 1949. He was appointed as Assistant
Professor of Physics, in the Department of Physics of the Indian
Institute of Science. He was made in charge of the X-ray Diffraction
Laboratory that he was instrumental in building as a student. Earlier
in the same department he had worked for his DSc degree under the
supervision of Prof. C.V. Raman. But this time Raman was not there.
He had left the Institute of Science and had started his own institute,
Raman Research Institute. The Department of Physics was then headed
by Prof. R.S. Krishnan. Ramachandran could attract some very bright
young men such C. Radhakrishnan, Gopinath Kartha and Y.T. Thatachary
to his research group. The X-ray Diffraction Laboratory set up by
Ramachandran grew over the years to home one of the strongest research
groups in the physics department.
After about two years in the Indian Institute
of Science he shifted to Madras University, one of the three universities
that were first set up in India. The other two were Calcutta University
and Bombay University. At that time Dr. A. Lakshmanaswamy Mudaliar
was the Vice Chancellor of the Madras University. It was Mudaliar,
who being influenced by the legendary. Prof. C.V. Raman, planned
to establish post- graduate department in experimental physics at
the University of Madras. He requested Prof. Raman to head this
newly established department and he offered him financial and administrative
autonomy for the development of the proposed department. Raman expressed
his inability to head the department; but at the same time he recommended
the name of Ramachandran. And this is how Ramachandran joined the
Madras University in October of 1952 as the first professor and
head of the Department of Physics. At the time, Ramachandran was
just 30 years old. The Department of Physics was started with two
faculty members, Ramachandran in experimental physics and Alladi
Ramakrishnan in theoretical physics. Ramakrishnan was the first
to join the department in April, 1952 and in that way he was the
founding member of the department. The department was first located
in a single room of the main building of the University on the Marina
beach in Madras. Ramachandran's laboratory was also located in the
Alagappa Chettiar College of Engineering Technology Complex in Guindy,
a suburb of Madras.
Ramachandran's research work carried out at the
Madras University brought an unprecedented level of recognition
to the University. He organised two international conference in
1963 and 1968 and he was successful in bringing some of the most
famous scientists in molecular biology and biophysics to Madras
viz. Linus Pauling, Severe Ochoa, Mauris Wilkins, Paul Flory and
After the retirement of Mudaliar as Vice Chancellor
of the Madras University, it became extremely difficult for Ramachandran
to carry out his research work. Mudaliar was succeeded bySundaravadivelu,
who was the Director of Public Education in the State Education
Department. It has been reported that Sundaravadivelu had no appreciation
for Ramachandran's seminal research contribution and instead of
supporting Ramachandran's efforts he created obstacles wherever
he could. And so finally Ramachandran resigned from the Madras University
in 1970 and came back to the Indian Institute of Science where he
had earlier studied and worked for two years after coming back from
Cambridge. At the time Professor Satish Dhawan, a well-known space
scientist, was the Director of the institute. Ramachandran was given
the responsibility of starting a new department of molecular biophysics.
The department which was formally started in1971 grew into a major
centre of structural biology.
To grasp exactly what Ramachandran did, one should
have a certain background in physics and chemistry. Here we do not
intend to go into detail about his research work. (Figure)
Explaining why he was attracted to biomolecular
conformation he wrote : "I should perhaps explain why I was
attracted to this fascinating subject. This is not merely a personal
history, but it has relevance to the reason why researchers in the
field of biomolecues turned in the way they did from about the beginning
of the 50's. Even in the first year of my pre-doctoral studies in
the early 40's with Raman, I was attracted by two books on his shelf,
namely "Nature of the Chemical Bond" by Linus Pauling
and "Natural and Synthetic High Polymers" by Kurt Meyer.
These left a profound impression on me, although at that time I
was working mostly on optics and diffraction theory under Prof.
Raman. I took crystal chemistry as an extracurricular subject of
study and as part of this, crystal structures came in serious consideration.
Even at that time, I used to wonder why so few of the materials
that formed the building blocks of living systems were fully explored
by crystalfographic techniques. No doubt, the structures of silk
and of cellulose and related materials were reasonably well established,
by studies starting right from the 1920s, and finally confirmed
by the work of Meyer and his co-workers. Similarly the pioneering
studies made by Astbury on Keratin, myosin, etc., had clarified
the fact that there exist two types of structures in the fibrous
proteins, namely the alpha and beta types."
Ramachandran worked in a number of fields in physics,
chemistry and biology. He contributed more than 250 publications
and several reviews in well-known international journals. His first
major research contribution was the discovery of the triple helical
structure of collagen. Ramachandran was drawn to collagen by J.D.
Bernal's remarks that structural proposals for collagen were unsatisfactory.
Bernal made these remarks in a casual conversation during his visit
to Madras in 1952. Triple helical structure of collagen was first
published in 1955. Ramachandran co-authored this paper with Gopinath
Kartha. Their concept of coiled-coil structure proved to be a fundamental
advance in the understanding of polypeptide structure. Coiled-Coil
structure means each of its three polypeptide chains are arranged
in the form of a helix, and then the three chains together form
a second helix. However, his structure was criticised by none other
than Francis H.C. Crick, who alongwith James D. Watson, unraveled
the helical structure ofD.N.A, the double helix. Crick and Alexander
Rich wrote in the November 1955 issue ofNature: "Very recently
Ramachandran and Kartha have made an important contribution by proposing
a coiled-coil structure of collagen. We believe this idea to be
basically correct but the actual structure suggested by them to
be wrong." Their structure consists of three polypeptide chains
each having approximately three-fold screw axis. In addition the
chains slowly wind around each other to form a coiled-coil, thus
reproducing the observed non-integer screw axis. The major helix
is right-handed, the minor one left-handed. Each chain is held to
its neighbors by two sets of systematic hydrogen bonds. The allowed
sequence of residues is -G-R-P-G-R-P- etc., were G implies glycine
only, R implies any residue, but usually proline or Hydroxyproline
. We believe this structure to be wrong for two reasons :
It is stereochemically unsatisfactory. In
particular there is a very short C alpha C alpha contact of
3.3 A° (normally 3.6 to 4 A°) and an extremely short
C -0 contact of 2.6 Abnormally 3.2 to 3.5 A°). In addition,
hydrogen bond angles are on the outside limit of the values
It is not compatible with recent work on
the amino acid sequence which shows that -gly-pro-hypro- is
a common sequence in collagen.
Twenty-seven students completed their Master
of Science (MS) or doctorate (PhD) theses under the supervision
of Ramachandran. Many of these students have made significant contributions
in the field of biophysics.
The criticism of unacceptably short interatomic
contact in the proposed structure of collagen led Ramachandran to
devise a general method for describing stereochemical criterion
for polypeptide structure and proteins. Ramachandran and his colleagues,
V. Sasisekharan and C.Ramakrishnan laid the foundations for the
conformational analysis of polypeptide chains. They introduced a
two dimensional map what is today known in biochemical literature
as the "Ramachandran phi -psi diagram" or simply "Ramachandran
plot", which provide a rational basis for describing all stereochemically
possible structures of polypeptides. They reduced the 'structure
space' of protein chains to two-dimensional with dihedral (torsion)
angles serving as variables. This had a profound impact on stereo-chemistry
and structural biology.
Fourier transforms fascinated Ramachandran. He
applied Fourier transforms for developing the theory of Image Reconstruction
from shadowgraphs (such as X-Radiographs) using the Convolution
Technique. In 1971 Ramachandran alongwith A.V. Lakshminarayana published
a seminal research paper on three-dimensional image reconstruction.
This marked the beginning of studies on tomographic methods. The
idea was adopted for the development of Catscan equipment which
has played an important role in the development of medical diagnosis
and surgery. In 1976 Ramachandran turned his attention to Fundamental
theory and Mathematical philosophy which led to the development
of a new Boolean Algebra Vector Matrix Formulation.
Ramachandran had received over a dozen of national
and international awards. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society
of London in 1977. As a part of its Golden Jubilee Celebration,
the Indian National Science Academy created five special research
professorships and the first one, the Albert Einstein Professorship
went to Ramachandran. Surprisingly Ramachandran was not given any
Government's civil awards as given to many other scientists. The
Central Leather Research Institute in Chennai has named the building
housing its auditorium "Triple Helix' after the triple helical
structure, of collagen discovered by Ramachandran and Gopinath Kartha
A write-up on Ramachandran may not be complete
without mentioning about his mental make-up. It was an open secret
that he used to receive psychiatric treatment. He used to believe
that other people were trying to read his mind and disturb his thought
process. However, this did not affect his productivity in scientific
research. He was a very highly temperamental man. Nobody knew when
he would flare up. But then he would not hesitate to apologise to
the person whom he offended by his behavior. He was a great teacher,
but his students were afraid of him. He would hardly come down to
an equal level with either his colleagues or his students, which
is necessary for frank academic discussion. He had to leave the
departments which he himself established and that too under unpleasant
circumstances. And after leaving the departments, he hardly kept
any interaction with his former colleagues or students.
For an outsider it would be difficult to say to
what extent Ramachandran himself was responsible for all this. Making
judgement on such issues is rather difficult. We may recall that
Prof. C.V. Raman also left Indian Association for the Cultivation
of Science at Calcutta, and theIndian Institute of Science under
unpleasant circumstances. What is important to note is that none
can undermine Ramachandran's scientific achievements, and that too
which he accomplished against all odds.
Ramachandran died on April 7, 2001.
We would like to end this article by quoting few
lines from the editorial tribute in Current Science by P. Balaram
and R. Ramasheshan, both of whom had seen Ramachandran in action
and who are themselves accomplished scientists:
"Ramachandran was clearly a "Nobel Class"
scientist, to borrow a phrase from Eugene Garfield. But his active
career was all too brief by modem day standards. For the last twenty
years Ramachandran was not really visible internationally, reminding
us of one of the ironies of modern science;
achievement alone is not enough, packaging and
marketing play an important role. In India, where administrative
positions are often considered a mark of scientific success Ramachandran
was essentially an 'outsider' to the establishment. We have yet
to learn that idiosyncratic personalities often make the most original
contribution to oil science. Ramachandran did alt his work in India,
following in the footsteps of his mentor, C.V. Raman.... Like man;
extraordinary gifted individuals, Ramachandran often had an uneasy
relationship with his surroundings. It was not easy for him to come
to terms with mediocrity. Elevated to the formidable position of
a head of the department at 30, he grew to be isolated from his
colleagues, rarely establishing the easy academic relationships
that make science a pleasure. But even at the height of his career
Ramachandran most enjoyed scientific discussion; unfortunately his
surroundings could rarely rise to the levels he demanded... In many
ways, when the end came it was indeed time to go. But, Ramachandran
has left behind a rich scientific legacy. His achievements will
serve as a source of inspiration for generations to come. Ramachandra
was undoubtedly one of the most outstanding scientists of post-independence
India and truly, a jewel in the crown of India's science".
I would like to thank
Prof. Santosh K. Kar of Jawaharlal Nehru University for giving
me the book, Ramchandraran :A Biography of the famous Indian
Biophysicist, by Raghupathy Sharma, which has immensely helped
me in writing this article. - S. Mohanti.
OF G.N. RAMACHANDRAN'S CAREER
Gopalasamudram Narayana Ramachandran
Born on October 8,1922
G.R. Narayana Iyer
BSc(Hons) Physics, St.
Joseph's College, Trichy
India Institute, of Science (HSc),
HSc (Under the supervision of Prof.
PhD Crystallography, Cavendish
laboratory,University of Cambridge, England
Assistant Professor of
Physics, HSc Bangalore
Professor & Head of Deptt.
of Physics, University of Madras
Professor & Head, Molecular
Biophysics Unit, lISc, Bangalore
Institute Professor, Mathematical Philosophy, lISc, Banglore
INSA Albert Einstein Professor, Mathematical Philosophy
Group, IISc Bangalore
He also held the following assignments : Director, Centre
for Advanced Study in Biophysics & Crystallography, University
of Madras (1962-70); Jawaharial Nehru Fellowship (1967-71);
Part-time professor of Biophysics, University of Chicago,
Fellow of the Indian National Science Academy (FNA)
Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, London (FRSA)
Fellow of the Royal Society, London (FRS)
Founder Member of the Third
World Academy of Sciences
Council of International Union of Pure & applied Biophysics
Member, various Sub-commissions
of the commission on Biochemical Nomenclature of the IUPAC-IUB
Professor Ramachandran was a member of editorial boards of a number
of national and international journals.
Membership in professional
organisaitons/bodies (all are not
Important research Contributions:
His most important contributions were:
Discovery of the triple helical structure of the
connective tissue protein called collagen.
'The Ramachandran phi-psi Plot' which has become a standard description of protein
Development of the theory of image reconstruction
from shadawgraphs (such as X-radiograms)
using the Convolution Technique.
a number of national/international awards.
He died on April 07, 2001.