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Sahib Singh Sokhey (1887-1971)

Indian biochemist, British Indian Army general and military physician who was also a nominated member of the Rajya Sabha, the Upper House of the Indian Parliament

Sahib Singh Sokhey

Sahib Singh Sokhey was born in Amritsar, Punjab in 1887 to Sardar Jwala Singh Sokhey, a civil engineer who worked on various irrigation projects in the Punjab and Burma. A brilliant student, he completed his initial studies at the Central Medical School and at Government College, Lahore, taking an honours degree in physics and chemistry from the University of the Punjab in 1905. After a year at the Lahore Medical College (now King Edward Medical University), he went to the University of Edinburgh in 1907. At Edinburgh, he completed his MBBS degree in 1911, followed by an MA in economics in 1912.

In 1913, Sokhey sat the Indian Medical Service (IMS) examinations, passing first. He was commissioned a lieutenant in the IMS on 26 July 1913. During the First World War, he served in France on the Western Front, and was promoted to captain on 26 July 1916 (antedated to 1 September 1915). After the war, he served in Mesopotamia until 1921, when he returned to India. He subsequently commanded the Indian Military Hospital at Kolkata for two years.

Medical research

In 1923, he was awarded a Rockefeller Fellowship for postgraduate studies abroad. From 1923 to 1925, he studied clinical biochemistry at Harvard University, subsequently studying in Toronto under Nobel laureate John MacLeod, a co-discoverer of insulin. before returning to Edinburgh to completed an MD in 1926, the same year he promotoed to the rank of major. He also conducted research on nutrition at Trinity College, Cambridge.

Following his return to India in mid-1925, Major Sokhey was appointed an assistant director at the Haffkine Institute in Mumbai. His early research there involved the biochemistry of coeliac disease, then known as "sprue." In connection with this research, Sokhey conducted clinical studies of the metabolisms of men and women in Mumbai, to compare their metabolisms with those of Europeans.

In 1926, he established a Biochemistry Department at the Institute, becoming its first Indian director in 1932. As Director, the now-Colonel Sokhey expanded the scope of the Institute, establishing an Entomology Department (1938), a Serum Department (1940) to manufacture vaccines, antitoxins and snake antivenin, a Chemotherapy Department (1940) to conduct research into sulfa and synthetic pharmaceuticals, a Pharmacology Department (1943) and a Nutrition Department (1944). 

From 1932 through the Second World War, Sokhey primarily focused on expanding the Institute's vaccine production and development capacity and improving the quality of its various vaccines and antitoxins. Under Sokhey's supervision, the Institute initiated studies on antibiotic therapies for plague, beginning with sulfathiazole in 1939 and continuing with tetracyclines and related antibiotics during and after the Second World War. 

Towards the end of the war, Sokhey established pilot plants at the Institute to manufacture sulfathiazole, paludrine, chloroquine and penicillin. From 1944-1946, he served on the Pharmaceutical and Drug Committee of the government Planning Department. He also served on a committee tasked with establishing the National Chemical Laboratory and the National Physical Laboratory. In 1946, he was among the key individuals involved in establishing a penicillin manufacturing plant, which later became Hindustan Antibiotics. Sokhey was promoted to major-general in 1946, retiring from the Indian Army the following year.

World Health Organization and later life

In 1949, General Sokhey retired from the directorship of the Haffkine Institute after a 17 year tenure. During a visit to Bombay, Brock Chisholm, the Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), met Sokhey and offered him the post of Assistant Director General (Technical Services) in the WHO, with the responsibility for epidemiology, health statistics and biological standardisation. Sokhey served in this position in Geneva until 1952, when he completed his term and returned to India. In 1952, he was nominated to the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of Parliament, retiring a few years later.

In 1953-54, Sokhey obtained the assistance of Soviet officials to build a large public-sector pharmaceutical plant in India, today known as Indian Drugs and Pharmaceuticals Limited (IDPL). In his retirement, Sokhey chaired the All-India Peace Council and the Pharmaceutical and Drugs Committee of the CSIR, and in 1962, he became a personal advisor to the Director-General of the CSIR, Syed Hussein Zahir, and was appointed an Emeritus Scientist in 1965.

He died at his New Delhi residence on 23 October 1971, aged 83.

Additional sources

Indian Journal of History of Science