Salimuzzaman Siddiqui

Pradipto Roy, MBBS  
National Institute of Mental Health And Neurosciences Institute of National Importance, India

Salimuzzaman Siddiqui working in his laboratory
Hamdard Foundation

Professor Salimuzzaman Siddiqui (1897-1994), the scientist from South Asia who improved our understanding of the pharmacology of medicinal plants, was also a renowned artist influenced by German Expressionism, a literary critic, poet, translator of Rainer Maria Rilke, and musician. These diverse dimensions of Prof. Siddiqui can be traced to the early-twentieth century South Asian context, where the progressive internationalist-nationalists made a sincere effort to shape its modernity.

Early Life

Salimuzzaman was born in Subeha, Barabanki district, near Lucknow in India on October 19, 1897. He grew up in Lucknow, the pluralistic cultural hub of northern India, where the rich heritage of Mughal culture flourished in eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Learning at home both Urdu and basic Persian, he soon developed from his father Sheikh Muhammad Zaman an interest in literature, poetry, and calligraphy.

He graduated in Persian literature and philosophy from Muhammadan Anglo Indian College1 in 1919, then studied medicine at the University College of London. In 1921, after one year of pre-medical studies, he moved to the University of Frankfurt-on-Main to study chemistry under Professor Julias Von Braun, earning his D.Phil (Nat.) in organic chemistry in 1927. Germany was then the epicenter of developments in organic and synthetic chemistry. It was also there that he fell in love with his classmate Ethel Wilhelmina Schneeman and married her in 1924.2

Siddiqui was the younger brother of Chaudhuri Khaliquzzaman, leader of the Muslim league and Chief Minister of the United Provinces of British India. Growing up in that nationalist milieu, Siddiqui soon became associated with Hakim Ajmal Khan (1868- 1927), the legendary Unani physician who came from a traditional physician family and represented the Islamic progressive and nationalist politics of the day. Ajmal Khan promoted a revival of indigenous systems of medicine such as Unani and Ayurveda, while also welcoming western empiricism and medical advancements (Alavi 2008)(Metcalf 1985). He established the Tibia College in Delhi, where Ayurvedic and Unani medicine were being taught along with dissection, chemistry, and other subjects of modern medicine. Returning India in 1927, Siddiqui was entrusted by Ajmal Khan with the task of establishing the Drugs Research Institute at this Tibia College.

Background of Siddiqui’s Scientific Research

By early-twentieth century, growing involvement of Indians with modern science gaining impetus from the Swadeshi movement, led to a renewed thrust into research and the development of manufacturing industries. Professor Siddiqui’s scientific contribution can be placed among figures such as Acharya Prafulla Chandra Ray (1861-1944, chemist, nationalist, entrepreneur, founder of Bengal Chemical & Pharmaceuticals Works Ltd) and Sir (Dr.) Upendra Nath Bramhachari (1873-1946, discovered specific cure for the Kala-azar or visceral leishmaniasis by synthesis of urea-stibamine or carbo-stimamide in 1922). Owing to Sir R.N. Chopra’s (1882-1973) initiatives, the pharmacology department at the Calcutta School of Tropical Medicine became recognized as one of the world’s best laboratories. In physics, biology, and mathematics researchers such as J.C.Bose, M.N.Saha, S.N.Bose, C.V.Raman, S.Ramanujan and others were also already making their mark.

Siddiqui’s Contribution

Siddiqui’s initial contribution was his pioneering work on Rauwolfia serpentina. The practice of using herbal preparations for various ailments had long been part of South Asian medical traditions. One of the drugs identified in Ayurveda for treating insanity was Sarpagandha (Rauwolfia serpentina), also known as Chandrika (etymologically derived from the Sanskrit word chandra meaning moon and relating the association between moon and madness) (Jain and Murthy 2009).

The powdered roots of Sarpagandha had already been used for over a decade by Hakim Ajmal Khan to treat mental disorders (Malik 1977)(Yusuf 2013).3 During his tenure at the Tibia College, Siddiqui undertook systematic research of the active constituents of Sarpagandha roots and root barks. Kartick Chandra Bose and Gananath Sen, two renowned Ayurvedic physicians from Calcutta, reported the use of an alkaloid extract from Rauwolfia in hypertension and ‘insanity with violent maniacal symptoms’ (Sen and Bose 1931).4 Almost immediately Salimuzzaman, along with Hussein, then at Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), isolated several compounds from the roots of Sarpagandha (Siddiqui and Siddiqui 1931) became used worldwide.5 R.N. Chopra, the father of Indian pharmacology, and Rustom Vakil, the physician who popularized the use of Rauwolfia in hypertension, and many others, extensively quoted Siddiqui in their research.6 Siddiqui had discovered, what later became known as a remarkable anti-arrhythmic agent of class Ia (blocking the sodium and HERG potassium channels in the cardiac myocytes, and thereby prolonging the action potential), which is still a first line agent in the treatment of ventricular tachyarrhythmia. Its pro-arrhythmic potential is also used to bring out the typical findings of ST elevation in patients suspected of having Brugada syndrome.7

Siddiqui also discovered the antihelmintic, anti-fungal, antibacterial, and antiviral properties of the Neem tree. In 1942 he isolated three bitter compounds from Neem oil, namely nimbin, nimbinin, and nimbidin, – all serving as natural pesticides and active ingredients of many medicines and bio-pesticides.

Recognition and further research

In the 1940s Siddiqui became director of the newly established Indian Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (ICSIR). There, on request from Sir Shanti Saroop Bhatnagar,8 he introduced election ink to curb voting manipulation,9 but ironically had to spend the latter half of his life in a country that seldom had use of it.10However, the same formula is still being used in every election in India. After Partition, Dr. Siddqui moved to Pakistan.11 Heading the Pakistan CSIR since 1951, Siddiqui greatly influenced the scientific development in Pakistan.12

In recognition of his scientific leadership the Frankfurt University awarded him the degree of D.Med. Honoriscausa in 1958. In 1960 he became President of the Pan-Indian Ocean Science Academy and was also elected Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS). For his contributions to science and medicine, the government of Pakistan awarded him Tamgha-e-Pakistan and Sitaram-e-Imtiaz. Prof. Siddiqui continued to have an interest in chemical technologies ranging from coal processing to extracting medicinal substances from plants.13 In 1967, he set up at Karachi University the Department of Postgraduate Institute of Chemistry, which became a center for international excellence in chemistry.14

As a painter

Siddiqui was involved with the Bengal School of Art, the avant-garde nationalist (Swadeshi) art movement of early-twentieth century that reacted against the academic art style promoted in India by the British. During time consuming scientific work he also made time to sketch many pieces.  His paintings were shown at the 1924 the first international exhibition at Gallerie Schames at Franfurt-on-Main along with the famous German painters Nolde and Muller. His second international exhibition at UzielliGallerie in Frankfurt in 1927 was a great success. His work was shown in exhibitions from Berlin to Bangalore, Delhi to Karachi, and was widely appreciated.15 In 1985 the Goethe Institute in Pakistan issued his painting of Amir Khusro on its greeting card.

Dr. Siddiqui also had keen interest in poetry. Having a flair for Arabic and Persian, especially for Ghalib and Meer, he also compiled his own ‘Intekhab-i-Meer’. During his stays in Germany he translated the poems of Rainer Maria Rilke, published for the first time in Urdu in 1930. In 1966 he was in the forefront of setting up of the Central Institute of Arts and Crafts in Karachi.

When he died in Karachi in 1994 his funeral16 was attended by the elites and notables of the city. He had contributed more than 400 research papers, developed some fifty formulations of pharmaceutical importance, and guided many doctoral students in natural products chemistry. On April 1999 Pakistan issued a commemorative stamp to honor his contributions, and in the same year the street leading to PCSIR Laboratories Complex in Karachi was named as Shahrah-e-Dr. Salim-uz-Zamman Siddiqui.


Prof Siddiqui’s career highlights the complexities of science and society in twentieth century South Asia. As a scientist, he applied empirical methods to discover novel and extremely important uses of traditional knowledge. At that time the principles of synaptic biology and pharmacodynamics were not amenable to further understanding as methods to study them were still being developed.  By the second half of twentieth century, post Second World War developments in technology spurred advanced research in the industrialized world. The scientific and professional elite of South Asia had however by now been dispersed due to political events after the Partition. Syncretic research that could synthesize tradition and modernity, and collaborations that could encourage this were no longer possible. Thus, despite the early breakthroughs in identifying these chemical compounds, their properties and psycho-pharmacological significance could not be explored in further detail within South Asia (Bein 1982). Society and politics, and science were partitioned into those representing tradition and modernity, which were now seen to be antithetical, and often incompatible. The contributions of Prof Siddiqui serve to remind us that it was not, and does not need to be, so.



  1. Muhammadan Anglo Oriental College, later known as Aligarh Muslim University (AMU).
  2. Returning India Siddiqui also married his cousin Shakira to whom he had been engaged for a long time. She lived with him in Delhi and they had two sons (Arif and Asif). She refused to leave India after partition and lived with her father and family in Lucknow. The youngest son stayed with her. Salimuzzaman was joined by his first wife in Pakistan (her son, Salim’s firstborn, was Raphe). Both wives predeceased him. Rafe-uz-Zaman also became a renowned painter of Pakistan who passed away in 2000.
  3. Sarpagandha roots extracts were easily available at village markets all over India, at remarkable cheap prices as pagalon ki dawa, meaning drugs for the mad, till mid twentieth century (Jain and Murthy 2009). It was also in common use by mothers in small dosages, to put their crying babies to sleep (Ernst 2013).
  4. The early-twentieth century witnessed the Ayurvedic and Unani revivalist movements. Sen and Bose, two of its pioneers, collaborated with the Chopra group at the Calcutta School of Tropical Medicine to work on Sarpagandha. Sarpagandha extracts were then also being trialed for its sedative action at the then Indian Mental Hospital, Ranchi (now RINPAS) under Dr. J.E. Dhanjibhay (Ernst 2013). It was also in use in NIMHANS (Jain and Murthy 2009).
  5. Siddiqui succeeded extracting at least nine distinct alkaloids from Sarpagandha roots from different parts of Indian subcontinent. Sharing the larger nationalistic vision of South Asian polity, Siddiqui named the anti-arrhythmic agent as ‘Ajmaline’ after Ajmal Khan, from whom actually Siddiqui came to know about it(Malik 1977)(Gupta 2002). He named some other Sarpagandha alkaloids too after Ajmal Khan, namely, Ajmaliline, Ajmalicine, Isoajmaline, Neoajmaline etc.
  6. For details please see, (Chopra, Gupta and Mukherjee 1933) (Vakil 1940) (Chopra and Chakravarty 1941) (Chopra, Bose, et al. 1942) (R. J. Vakil 1949) (Bein 1953) (Wilkins 1953) (Wilkins 1953) (Kline 1954) (Chopra and Chopra 1955) (Chopra and Chopra 1958) (Gupta 2002) (Sneader 2005)
  7. Brugada syndrome is a genetic disorder in sodium channels of the heart muscles, which is prevalent in Thailand and Laos, causing sudden unexplained death syndromes resulting from ventricular fibrillation.
  8. Prof. Shanti Swaroop Bhatnagar (1864- 1955), was a renowned scientist, the first Director General of CSIR, ‘father of Indian laboraties’, and first chairman of University Grants Commission (UGC), who contributed substantially to the development of scientific research, academics, and industries in India.
  9. In Siddiqui’s own words, “Bhatnagar sent a sample containing silver chloride which when applied would not stain the skin until much later. I fixed it with silver bromide and the staining power improved instantly. I sent the sample back with the same messenger who had brought it. It was shown to eight members of the Election Commission, all of whom tried it over their fingertips. It instantly dyed their skins” (Ismail 1994).
  10. Democracy in Pakistan being unstable, voting is not a regular phenomenon there. The country has experienced several decades under totalitarian military regime (1958 – 1971, 1977 – 1988, 1999 – 2008), when no election was allowed to be conducted.
  11. Dr. Siddiqui moved to Pakistan on a personal request from Liaquat Ali Khan, the then Prime Minister of Pakistan to Jawaharlal Nehru, the then Prime Minister of India, to made his services available to Pakistan to develop its scientific base (Yusuf 2013)(Life Sketch of Professor Salimuzzaman Siddiqui, F.R.S 1982). Though there is also suggestion that Dr. Siddiqui had no other option but to move to Pakistan, due to strong anti-Muslim milieu in India at the eve of Partition, which being coupled to institutional politics, made his position in India a bit uncertain (Anderson 2010). Also his brother Chadhuri Khaliquzzaman had already left for Pakistan in 1947. During the riots that followed Partition, Dr. Siddiqui was being regularly escorted to his residence by his Hindu pupils (Yusuf 2013), and sometimes had to take refuge in Muslim cabinet ministers’ home, which used to have police protection. These findings could be further corroborated by the fact that recent Indian academia is meaningfully silent regarding Siddiqui, while from accounts in the Pakistani journals it would even be very difficult to conclude whether he lived in India at all. Chaudhuri Khaliquzzaman also became a pariah in both Pakistan and India, once he lamented the ‘two-nation theory’ as retrogressive move for the subcontinent, in his autobiography ‘Pathways to Pakistan’ (1961).
  12. Prof. Siddiqui established the Pakistan Academy of Sciences as a think tank of distinguished scientists of the country. In 1956 he was designated as a member of the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC)
  13. By extracting several novel medicinal compounds from the plant Holarrhena antidysenterica, Dr. Siddiqui discovered an effective treatment for dysentery, the inflammatory disorder of the intestine causing bloody diarrhea. In 1966, he was designated the ‘Father of Holarrhena Chemistry’ by Prague University in the then Czechoslovakia.
  14. Later on, it came to be known as ‘Hussain Ebrahim Jamal Research Institute of Chemistry’; Siddiqui also headed the ‘National Commission for Indigenous Medicine’ of Pakistan in 1976.
  15. Halide Edib, the famous Turkish leader who travelled to India was substantially moved by Siddiqui’s paintings. In her own words, “Dr. Salim uz Zamana first-rate chemist … is an original and talented painter of the New School. Each time I visited his house at Delhi the sketches and the paintings on the walls of his bungalow fascinated me. They are utterly different from those of his brother. But he himself is being a fair representative of his contemporaries, filled with restlessness and discontent. One felt from his work the painful consciousness of confusion and contradictory problem which besets the world. The heads of his women had crooked mouths, distorted with the suffering and despair which take hold of people in a transitional age. The age was a blind beggar among them. The expression of the closed eyes with their sightless…The sketch was inspired by Rainer Marian Rilk’s Das Lied des Blinden …. Anguish, the movement of his cane in search of direction, seemed to me a true symbol of the young generation. But his masterpiece was the portrait of his mother. It stood above the harassing symbols of the son’s confused time as a symbol of the wholesome and the natural which light the lives of the young” (Edib 1937). Dr. Siddiqui released his portfolio of 15 charcoal drawings on April 7, 1983 which covered his collection from 1920 to 1950s.
  16. Funeral procession known as Nimaz Jinaza


References & Select Bibliography

Akhtar, M. “Salimuzzaman Siddiqui, M.B.E.: 19 October 1897 – 14 April 1994.” Biographical Memoires of Fellows of Royal Society 42 (1996): 401-17.
Alavi, Seema. Islam and Healing: Loss and Recovery of an Indo-Muslim Medical Tradition, 1600-1900. Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.
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This essay might not have been possible without the constant reminder and support from Prof. (Dr.) Sanjeev Jain, my principal work supervisor, whose continuous effort and remarkable zeal to initiate, propagate, and sustain medical-humanities academics in the third world, prompted me to venture into this initiative. I also acknowledge the sincere help of all my teachers and colleagues, especially Prof. (Dr.) Pratima Murthy and Dr. Alok Sarin, who have gone through previous versions of this essay, and enriched me with their valuable suggestions. We also like to acknowledge the cordial and spacious support that we received from Dr. Saman Habib, Senior Principal Scientist and In-Charge, Division of Molecular and Structural Biology, Central Drugs Research Institute (CDRI), Lucknow, India, who happen to be a niece of Prof. Siddiqui. Without her, it would be otherwise very difficult for us to be sure about certain personal accounts of Prof. Siddiqui. I also wish to thank Suhasini, my wife, who even amidst her extremely busy schedule never failed to provide her affectionate support in scrutinizing and commenting on all my drafts, though sometimes with a little frowning over my use of bizarre expressions.


PRADIPTO ROY, MBBS, is a health professional and interdisciplinary researcher, presently Wellcome Trust Doctoral Research Fellow at NIMHANS, India. He previously worked in a Tertiary Care Government Hospital of West Bengal in India. His research interests include history of medicine, disease ecology and politics of access to developments in science and technology. He is currently investigating the history of growth of ideas and associated changes in material culture.