The Scientist Who Painted: Dr. Salimuzzaman Siddiqui

It was in the wee hours of morning that the telephone rang….I am talking about the late 50s when having the landline telephone was a sign of luxury……My grandfather picked up the phone waking up from deep sleep and with a fear in his heart that something has gone wrong somewhere. The other voice pleaded to him, “Salam, for God’s sake bring him back from the lab. He is there for the past four days.” Within 5 minutes, my grandfather was in his Morris Minor driving down to Karachi University. The person on the other line was the German wife of Dr. Salimuzzaman Siddiqui. When all things fail, she used to call my grandfather to practice his fine arts of persuasion to bring Dr. Siddiqui out of his lab where he was totally immersed in his work and losing all context of time. This story has been narrated to me by my late grandmother. I was just a twinkle in my father’s eyes.  On a different note, I was reading an interview of Dr. Siddiqui after many a years. He mentioned the importance of hard work and research and narrated an event when one of the scientist was disheartened as he/she was doing research for the past one year on  a certain assignment which was not going anywhere. Dr. Siddiqui explained his own experience when he worked for years and finally found out his original premises was not correct. The job of the scientist is to dedicate himself to pure research and hard work. Nobody can control the results. His life was a true embodiment of this principle.

Born in a well known family of Subeha (Barabanki District) near Lucknow on 19 October 1897, he received his early education in Urdu and Persian. He also developed interest in literature, poetry and calligraphy from his father Sheikh Mohammad Zaman. His elder brother Choudhry Khaliq-uz-Zaman was a famous leader of the Pakistan Movement. The young Salim uz Zaman and his family has been mentioned affectionately by QuratulAin Hider in her autobiography “Kar-e-jahan Daraaz Hai” as they were quite known in Lucknow society. After getting his graduation in Persian and Philosophy (a very interesting choice for one of the brightest minds of chemistry), he proceeded to England to persue medicine. However upon the advice of his elder brother to study Chemistry in Germany as they were the best in Chemistry, he later decided to go to Germany to study Chemistry and completed his PhD in 1927. In 1924, he married his German classmate, Ethel Wilhelmina Schneeman (who changed her name to Talat and was nicknamed Tilly) . One of the interesting fact of that stay is that Ch. Khaliquzzaman provided him Rs10,000 for his expenses and when they were eaten up by inflation, the great Hakim Ajmal Khan arranged Rs400 per month for him to complete his studies.

Upon his return to India, he established and became the first director of Ayurvedic and Unani Tibbi Research Institute at the Tibbia College Delhi, under the guidance of Hakim Ajmal Khan. (This very fact shows the emphasis over research being shown by the Hakims of Dehli. The same tradition was followed by Hakim Saeed in Pakistan and his brother Hakim Hameed in Dehli through Hamdard Foundation.) Over there, he was able to observe the various plants and herbs being used by the great Hakim as medicine for various ailments. He observed that Hakim Ajmal Khan used snakeroot for ailment of mental disorders. He started his research and his first breakthrough came when he successfully isolated an antiarrhythmic agent in 1931 from the roots of Rauwolfia serpentina. He named the newly discovered chemical compound as Ajmaline, after his mentor Hakim Ajmal Khan. Later on, Siddiqui also extracted other alkaloids from Rauwolfia. Many of these are still used worldwide for treatment of mental disorders and cardiovascular ailments, especially as antiarrhythmic agents in Brugada syndrome. After the death of Hakim Ajmal, he joined Indian Council of Scientific and Industrial Research and later migrated to Pakistan in 1951 upon the request of Nawabzada Liaquat Ali Khan.

His later shifted his focus to Neem. Siddiqui was the first scientist to bring the anthelmintic, antifungal, antibacterial, and antiviral constituents of the Neem tree to the attention of natural products chemists. In 1942, he extracted three bitter compounds from neem oil, which he named as nimbin, nimbinin, and nimbidin respectively From 1942 to the end of his career, he was able to identify and isolate 50 chemical compounds (patented in his name) from Neem just as a result of his own research in addition to those discovered as a result of his joint research with other colleagues and students. Most of these discoveries still remain vital natural ingredients of various medicines as well as biopesticides. In acknowledgement of these revolutionary discoveries, he was awarded the Order of the British Empire in 1946.

Dr. Salimuzzaman was given the task of scientific research activities in Pakistan. In 1953, he founded the Pakistan Academy of Sciences as a non-political think tank of distinguished scientists in the country. He also served as one of the founding member of Pakistan Atomic Research Commission in 1956 and established Pakistan Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (PCSIR) in Karachi.

He was awarded various medals by the Government and the Frankfurt University for organizing scientific activity in Pakistan. Another interesting fact is that both Dr. Salimuzzaman and Ch. Khaiquzzaman are the only brothers in the history of Pakistan to received Hilal-e-Pakistan medal.

In 1967, Siddiqui was invited by University of Karachi to set up a Postgraduate Institute of Chemistry in affiliation with the Department of Chemistry. He was designated as the institute’s Founder Director, whereas the additional research staff was provided by PCSIR. In 1976, the institute was offered a generous donation from Hussain Jamal Foundation, as a result of which it was renamed as Hussain Ebrahim Jamal Research Institute of Chemistry. In due time, Siddiqui transformed the institute into a distinguished centre of international excellence in the field of chemistry and natural products. In March 1975, he headed the National Commission for Indigenous Medicine His tireless efforts for the promotion of science and technology earned him Hilal-e-Imtiaz by the Government of Pakistan in 1980. In 1983, he played a major role in the establishment of the Third World Academy of Sciences and became its Founding Fellow. He remained the director of the Hussain Ebrahim Jamal Research Institute of Chemistry until 1990 when he turned the reins to another great scientist, teacher and administrator Dr. Ata Ur Rehman. However, he continued research in his personal laboratory. Pakistan produces about 35 Ph.D’s in the sciences annually from its 24 universities and 130 research centers, of which, about half are now produced by H.E.J. Research Institute of Chemistry alone. Having the single largest doctoral program in the country, the institute provides a place of work to more than one hundred young scientists who are enrolled for Ph.D. Ievel studies on various aspects of organic chemistry, biochemistry and pharmacology. The amount of quality research and scientist churned out by this institute is perhaps the topic of another detailed article.

Usually when we read about the great Muslim scientists of the yester years, we observe that they were not just scientist, but had great interest in arts. Dr. Siddiqui was a follower of the same tradition. He was a refined poet, musician, and a painter. In August 1924, he held his first international exhibition of paintings in Frankfurt. Later in 1927, his works of art were exhibited at the Uzielli Gallery, Frankfurt. During his stay in Germany, he also translated Rainer Maria Rilke’s poetry into Urdu, which was published in the journal of Jamia Millia Islamia. Though, his passion for arts was superseded by the enthusiasm in scientific research, he continued to patronize arts and culture. In 1966, he was at the forefront for setting up the Central Institute of Arts and Crafts in Karachi. He also compiled a selection of poetry of Mir Taqi Mir into Intekhab-e-Meer. In 1983, he published a portfolio collection of charcoal drawings from 1920 to 1950s.

I still remember when he attended a literary program of PTV where he spent about half an hour just explaining the meaning of the first line of Ghalib’s Divan

Naqsh Faryadi hai kis ki shauqi-e-tehreer ka

About whose mischievousness of writing is the image a plaintiff

He traced the origin of this line to the first couplet of Misnavi Maulana Raum

Listen to the reed of the flute, how it a long complaint makes:
it, explanation of the tale of separation, loud and faint makes…

“Ever since the time that I was torn away from the reed’s bed
my cries have caused men and women… many a sigh to shed.

He also related this to the Sufi philosophy of Wahdatul Wajood, that we are all part of the same light and we all feel unhappy as in our physical form we are being separated from the great light or noor. His method of explanation was so simple that it is still fresh in my memory after quarter of a century.

Dr. Siddiqui breathed his last on April 14, 1994 at the age of 97. His continuing legacy, perhaps are his great students who are continuing the fine traditions of research and service to humanity taught to them by this great scientist and human being. Perhaps Sadequein’s rubayi hold true in Dr. Salimuzzaman case too.

Chalo es baar Saahiri kar kay dekhoon

Kia farq hai shyari kar kay dekhon

Tasweeron mein ashaar kahen hein mein nay

Shayari mein mussawari kar kay dekhon.

  1. 1.       Special Thanks to Dr. Ghulam Nabi Kazi and Obaid-ur-Rehman Advocate for providing and clarifying facts

For some rare photos of Dr. Saleemuzzaman please visit Dr. Ghulam Nabi Kazi’s photo stream


2 Responses to “The Scientist Who Painted: Dr. Salimuzzaman Siddiqui”

  1. shahana Says:

    Hi I am interested in finding out a bit more about Dr Salimuzzaman as he along with his wife TIlly are mentioned in my grandmother’s book. How can I contact you?

  2. Ghulam Nabi Kazi Says:

    Thank you very much for an excellent article!

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