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OBITUARY  
Year : 2022  |  Volume : 65  |  Issue : 4  |  Page : 970-973
A tribute to the legend in neuropathology: Professor S. K. Shankar


Department of Neuropathology, NIMHANS, Bangalore, Karnataka, India

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Date of Web Publication21-Oct-2022
 

How to cite this article:
Mahadevan A. A tribute to the legend in neuropathology: Professor S. K. Shankar. Indian J Pathol Microbiol 2022;65:970-3

How to cite this URL:
Mahadevan A. A tribute to the legend in neuropathology: Professor S. K. Shankar. Indian J Pathol Microbiol [serial online] 2022 [cited 2022 Dec 7];65:970-3. Available from: https://www.ijpmonline.org/text.asp?2022/65/4/970/359368




(27-09-1947 to 05-09-2022)



Prof. Susarla Krishna Shankar was born into a highly cultured and progressive vedic family in Vishakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh, and was the first of seven siblings. His father Sri S. Gopala Sastry was a civil engineer, entrepreneur, social activist (Karma Yogi) and freedom fighter and his mother Smt. Sitadevi was a gentle and learned lady. His grandfather Sri S. S. B. Shankara Sastry, a revered scholar, taught him Sanskrit and the Vedas and instilled the values of honesty, discipline, rigor, and pride in Indian culture that laid the early foundation of his personality.

He graduated from Andhra Medical College in 1969 as the best outgoing student and did his MD Pathology from the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), New Delhi (1971–1974). He worked for another five years as a research associate. He is fondly remembered by all of his colleagues for his ever-present support, teaching, and photographic skills. He was greatly influenced by Dr. Baldev Singh, Dr. P. N. Tandon, and Dr. M. G. Deo, who kindled his interest in research and taught him to look for phenomenology and not merely pathology. These early lessons led him to be constantly striving to understand the pathobiology of disease by looking for “commonalities”—as he would often say—in varied disease processes and go beyond the textbooks. He received the coveted Khanolkar Award for his thesis, that was adjudged the best research paper from the Indian Association of Pathologists and Microbiologists in 1973.

He joined the National Institute of Mental Health & NeuroSciences (NIMHANS) in 1979, and in a career that would span nearly four decades he put the department on the global map to earn recognition as a center of excellence in Neuropathology. In 1985, he travelled to the Nation Institutes of Health (NIH) on a Fogarty International Fellowship. He worked in the Nobel laureate Carlton Gadjusek's lab at Fort Detrick NIH, for two years from 1985 to 1987. It was perhaps during this time that his interest in prion diseases was triggered. In 1992, he spent six weeks in Michael Palkovic's lab in the Department of Anatomy, Simmelweiss University, Budapest, Hungary, as part of the Inter Science Academy Exchange Programme. It was during this time that he learned the art of whole brain sectioning.

He was an astute diagnostician and a wonderful teacher. The most important lesson I learnt from him was that pathology cuts across disciplines. We are clinicians, equally essential for clinical care. He led by example, always participating in everything. He loved the simple act of grossing, and would often fight with me to do grossing of surgical biopsies even when he was the head of the department. No job was below his dignity. Even when it came to cleaning of instruments and the grossing area in the lab or in the mortuary, he would insist on doing it himself and not leave it for the attenders. He handled tissues with reverence while grossing. His descriptions of both the gross and histology was very educative, as the descriptions accurately reflected the tissue appearance. He abhorred unimaginative descriptions such as “multiple greywhite soft tissue bits”!



He would often say, “Look around the lesion also, how the tissue is reacting, each cell is talking to you, only if you listen. Don't try to fit your observations to a diagnosis, faithfully put down what you see..” He always believed that we should perform all techniques ourselves so that we could guide the technicians. The technique of immunohistochemistry that he introduced in the lab back in the 1990s, he performed it himself. Results of immunohistochemistry was always carefully observed and documented. No findings could be dismissed as background/non-specific on immunohistochemistry. He would constantly say, “Document what you see. Don't dismiss a finding just because you don't understand what it means. It is telling you something.” He encouraged independent thinking and speculation. He encouraged everyone to publish and would himself write out entire an manuscript for a student without the expectation for co-authorship.

His greatest passion was microphotography. He took immense pleasure in taking photographs for everyone. Watching him take photographs was a great learning experience. Each slide was first immaculately cleaned, making sure there was not even a spot of dust or wax on it. The slide would then be scanned for hours until the perfect field was captured, carefully labelled with biopsy number and a short description. The number of dissertations and publications he has taken photos for is countless.



He was a strict disciplinarian and led by example. The quality of the work was of utmost importance and delays were not tolerated.

He headed the department of neuropathology from 1998 to 2010 and occupied the highest administrative positions including dean (2009–2010), followed by in-charge director, and vice chancellor of NIMHANS (February– June 2010).



He was a great visionary who could predict the needs of the nation far into the future. His ideas would seem radical and implausible to us, but in the end, he was always proved right. One of his accomplishments was the establishment of the Neurobiology Research Center that now houses 15 high-end research laboratories—translational psychiatry, neuro-oncology, stem cell biology, glial biology, proteomics, molecular biology, molecular genetics, neuromuscular lab, autoimmune lab, flow cytometry, and even music and cognition lab—back in 2010; that, today, has so much relevance. His mission was simple: provide high-end infrastructure to be a central facility to be shared and provided to all researchers, thereby providing the opportunity to perform high class basic and translational research. The deeply ingrained sense of sharing was again clearly evident in this enterprise.

His greatest triumph was the establishment of the one-and-only Human Brain Tissue Repository (brain bank) in 1995 with joint funding from the Department of Biotechnology (DBT), Department of Science & Technology (DST) and the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR). The Brain bank in the last 27 years of existence has supported >50 projects of researchers with >300 high-impact publications including in Nature, and several dissertations from the use of material from the brain bank. There has been significant scientific work with wide ranging application in unravelling the pathogenesis of many neurological disorders. Several fruitful collaborations were nurtured. He was also instrumental in setting up the CJD Registry in India, along with Dr. P. Satishchandra, that recorded all cases of CJD reported in India from 1969 onwards.

He was a researcher par excellence, and stringent academic honesty was his second nature. His passion was in neuro-infections, epilepsy, prion diseases, and fetal brain development. His passion for autopsies helped him make valuable contributions to neuropathology. His contributions in Japanese encephalitis, its association with cysticercosis, the mechanisms of immune subversion by cysticercus resulted in landmark publications. In large series of autopsies, he elucidated the kaleidoscope of neuropathological changes in neurotuberculosis and documented the cause of sudden death in tuberculous meningitis, the immune-architecture of tuberculoma, and the common pathways of pathogenesis between tuberculosis and cysticercosis. Several new insights into rabies viral pathogenesis and subacute measles encephalitis were reported.



During the HIV/AIDS epidemic, he fearlessly carried out autopsies, insisting that nothing would happen if we follow universal precautions. The mortuary staff willingly participated as he led by example and would be garbed and working amongst us. His work in HIV neuropathology received several laurels and he performed several hundred autopsies during the HIV epidemic. Cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) and tissues were kept in the brain bank, paving the way for important contributions in AIDS-related neuropathology. This experience paid off and helped me during the COVID-19 pandemic to carry out autopsies and create a biorepository of COVID-19 biospecimens for research. In fact, it was the same mortuary staff who urged me to begin autopsies of patients succumbing to COVID-19! We hope it made Sir proud!

The tissues stored in the brain bank proved to be a valuable treasure when new techniques like proteomics, genomics, and transcriptomics emerged. Proteomics and transcriptomic studies were performed in temporal lobe epilepsy, rabies, tuberculous meningitis, cryptococcal meningitis, and toxoplasma encephalitis. The influence of post-mortem delay in mitochondrial function was evaluated. The role of mitochondrial dysfunction in traumatic brain injury and neurodegenerative diseases were studied.

He set up the NIMHANS Brain Museum, the only one of its kind in the country. He threw it open to the public and school children as his mission was to spread “N-literacy” (neuroscience literacy) as he called it. He wanted to “sow the seeds of neuroscience in young minds.” As an Emeritus Professor, he spent hours passionately and tirelessly teaching the wonders of the brain to the public and children in the brain museum. In recognition of the valuable material collected, ICMR, Department of Health Research, Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Government of India funded the establishment of a Centre for Advanced Research For Innovation In Mental Health And Neurosciences to develop neuroscience educational material for popularizing neuroscience under the aegis of the Human Brain Bank and promote cadaver organ donation as an act of philanthropy and national priority. He developed a unique “Histological Atlas of the Common Infections of the CNS” which remains an invaluable teaching resource and has been distributed to many medical colleges for undergraduate and postgraduate teaching. He wanted everyone to have access to this wonderful resource but would always admonish saying “make sure this is shown to each student so they learn and not lock it up in a cupboard to be used only for exams!”.



As a teacher, he reigned supreme in the hearts of students. His classes for residents of neurology, neurosurgery. and pathology in Anatomy and Museum were legendary. He was very generous and shared his expertise, ideas, and wisdom with anybody in need. He took great pleasure in publishing and was cited as one of the three researchers in the country with the highest citation index.

He realized his dream to establish a Society for neuropathology in the country and delivered the presidential oration on Brain Banking in India as the President of the Neuropathology Society of India.

He was a godfather to his team members and particularly gentle and kind to children. He touched many a life and earned the respect of everyone who interacted with him.

He was born with a myelomeningocele; fought many a battle, endured, struggled and lived the life of a true guru. He lost the battle to multi-infarct dementia that robbed him of his prized possessions: independence, freedom of movement, speech, and finally, his memory. He passed away on Teacher's Day. Even in passing away, he continued to teach. He donated his brain to the brain bank—the cause that he held dear to him!

You will live on in our memories, Sir! I pledge to keep your dreams alive and take them forward. Every time a resident marvels at a gross specimen, every time a beautiful description is written, in every photomicrograph that's taken with pride, every time a resident asks a probing question, every time a scientist in India dares to dream, every time tissues from the Brain Bank are used by a researcher, and every time someone thinks of banking, you will be remembered….

A eulogy to a legend whose contributions are larger than life and helped establish the specialty of neuropathology in this country!



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Correspondence Address:
Anita Mahadevan
Professor & Head, Department of Neuropathology, NIMHANS, Bangalore, Karnataka
India
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None


DOI: 10.4103/0377-4929.359368

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