The Nobel Prize that got away
On Saturday, December 19, the Bangladesh Society of New Jersey (BSNJ) celebrated Bangladesh's Victory Day at Rutgers University's Douglass Campus Center in New Brunswick, New Jersey. The President of BSNJ, Lazima Mahmud, and the General Secretary, Omar Haider, invited me introduce to the audience two distinguished Bangladeshi Americans they were honouring.
It was my privilege to introduce Princeton University's world-renowned physicist, Professor Zahid Hasan, and the first Bangladeshi-American Rhodes Scholar, my younger cousin Dr. Kazi Sabeel Rahman.
I had written about the outstanding achievements of Professor Zahid Hasan in an Op-Ed in The Daily Star on August 19, 2015. His Weyl fermion discovery was named among the top ten breakthroughs of 2015 by Physics World. Suffice to say, Professor Hasan is at the pinnacle of his profession. I have never met someone so brilliant, yet so spiritual and humble as Professor Hasan. He is an inspiration to Bangladeshis of all ages. His wife, Sarah, whose father hails from Feni, is equally brilliant. Both Professor Zahid Hasan and Sarah's families are brimming with extraordinarily talented intellectuals. Zahid's father is from Dhaka.
After Kazi Sabeel Rahman was named the first Bangladeshi-American Rhodes Scholar in his senior year at Harvard (2004-05), I had written an Op-Ed about him in The Daily Star. The Rhodes Scholarship is the most prestigious graduate scholarship in the world. Rhodes Scholars study at Oxford University, England. Sabeel graduated from Harvard summa cum laude (highest degree of praise). He then earned a law degree (JD) from Harvard Law School, and a PhD in Political Science also from Harvard. Sabeel's wife, Noorain, is also a Rhodes Scholar. Currently, Sabeel is an Assistant Professor, Brooklyn Law School, and a Fellow at Roosevelt Institute and New America Foundation.
As I was mingling among geniuses, I was reminded of another Bangladeshi genius who certainly would have won this year's Nobel Prize in Medicine had he lived - Dr. Mohammad Abdul Aziz. In an Op-Ed in The Daily Star on November 30, entitled, "A Trailblazer in Medicine," the late Dr. Aziz's daughter, Dr. Leedy Hoque, wrote movingly about the extraordinary contributions her father made in the field of medicine.
Dr. Mohammad Abdul Aziz was born, raised and went to medical school in Bangladesh. Quoting Dr.Leedy Hoque: "Few people in Bangladesh will have heard of onchocerciasis or river blindness, a devastating parasitic infection that claims the sight of millions of people worldwide. The parasite Onchocerca volvulus is transmitted by the blackfly which breeds in rivers. Larvae of the parasite mature into adult worms, which in turn release microfilariae that eventually infiltrate the eye, causing blindness. It was a zealous Bangladeshi doctor based in the US who spearheaded the clinical trials back in the 1980s that eventually led to the discovery of a treatment for this illness, namely ivermectin, which is still considered the drug of choice for onchocerciasis. That doctor happened to be my father Dr. M A Aziz. Sadly, his life was cut short by terminal illness just as he reached the peak of his career. However, his work was taken over by another scientist by the name of William C. Campbell who, jointly with two other scientists, won this year's Nobel Prize in Medicine. I feel confident that this honour would have also been bestowed upon my father had he survived."
"The Nobel Committee in their citation accompanying the announcement of the 2015 Nobel Prize in Medicine describes the scientific background of the discovery of ivermectin. "In 1981-1982, Dr. Mohammed Aziz at MDRL, an expert in River Blindness, conducted the first successful human trial (Aziz et al 1982). The results were clear. Patients given a single dose of ivermectin showed either complete elimination or near elimination of microfilariae load, while the adult parasites were untouched." The results of this study carried out in Senegal were published in the Lancet in 1982. An extensive study was also carried out with patients in Senegal, Ghana, Mali and Liberia. This time, it was a double-blind study comparing the efficacy and safety of ivermectin, DEC (diethyl carbamazine, the drug previously used) and placebo, involving elaborate clinical, laboratory, parasitological and ophthalmological (fundus photography and retinal angiography) examinations. One single dose of ivermectin was effective in reducing the microfilariae even after 12 months and the side effects were considerably milder compared to DEC."
Nobel Prizes are not awarded posthumously. If they were, Bangladesh would be celebrating its second Nobel Prize this year. The age of the Nobel Prize winners range roughly from 60 to 90. Dr. Aziz would have been 85 this year.
I had met him briefly at a mutual friend's house in Oxford in the late 1970s. To my lasting regret, I did not realise until after his death in 1987 that our residences were only a mile and a half apart.
His children are equally gifted. Dr. Leedy Hoque studied medicine at Oxford University's Somerville College, where Prime Ministers Indira Gandhi and Margaret Thatcher also studied. Dr. Hoque is a world authority on autism. Her brother, Professor Tipu Zahed Aziz is a professor of neurosurgery at the John Radcliffe Hospital, Oxford University.
Two of Dr. Aziz's sons - Dr. Abid Aziz and Dr. Shahid Aziz - live in the US. Dr. Abid Aziz is a graduate of McGill University Medical School in Montreal, Canada. Abid looks remarkably like his father. A renowned surgeon, Dr. Shahid Aziz is a graduate of Harvard Medical School.
Dr. Aziz's legacy of altruism lives through his children. Dr. Shahid Aziz has founded the organisation Smile Bangladesh, and dedicated it to the memory of his father. Several times a year, Dr. Shahid Aziz and his colleagues make the trip to Bangladesh and surgically repair cleft lips and palates of Bangladeshi children.
Their website says: "Help a Child Smile: There are approximately 300,000 children in Bangladesh with unrepaired cleft lips and cleft palates. With a one-hour surgery, we can change their lives."
Bangladesh is not only proud of but also grateful to Dr. Mohammad Abdul Aziz and his children.
The writer is a Rhodes Scholar.