By: Amit Roy
A new residential building named after Dr Yusuf Hamied has opened at Christ’s College, Cambridge, where the head of the Indian pharma giant, Cipla, was an undergraduate and then PhD chemistry student between 1954 and 1960.
In more than 800 years that Cambridge University has been in existence, this is the first time an entire building has been named after an Indian.
The “grand opening of Yusuf Hamied Court” at Christ’s was presided over by Lord Simon McDonald, the Master of the College, and attracted about 25 leading scientists, mostly chemistry professors.
Professor Sir Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, a chemistry Nobel Prize winner and a former president of the Royal Society, was also present at the event earlier this month, as well as Dr Anthony Freeling, the acting vice-chancellor of Cambridge University, and the chemist Dame Mary Archer, wife of the best-selling novelist Jeffrey Archer.
Hamied and McDonald posed for photographs in front of the “entirely green” fourstorey building, where the 64 rooms for postgraduates and fellows from around the world will rely on heat exchangers, instead of gas.
Famous old boys at Christ’s include the Paradise Lost poet John Milton, whose mulberry tree in the College gardens still bears fruit that is turned into “delicious marmalade”; Charles Darwin, author of On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (schoolboys are told that basically “man descended from monkeys” much to the fury of religious creationists); and the Indian botanist and physicist Jagadish Chandra Bose, who invented radio waves before Guglielmo Marconi, but chose not to patent his discovery.
The building was funded by the charitable foundation set up by Hamied and his wife, Farida.
McDonald, who was previously the permanent under-secretary at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and head of the diplomatic service, said: “This is really Yusuf Hamied’s project. Yusuf has had the longest connection to Christ’s since Lord (Alexander) Todd (a Nobel prize winner and former Master of Christ’s) turned up in Bombay in the mid-1950s and saw promise in a 17- year-old he met there.
“And ever since then, Yusuf has had a close connection to the College. So he has the history and the vision and the generosity to make this project happen.”
Prof Frank Kelly, a mathematician who was Master of Christ’s from 2006-2016, said: “Since 2007, the College’s graduate numbers have increased from about 70 to around 270, a nearly four-fold increase…. Dr Hamied’s humanitarian work is rightly applauded worldwide, and Christ’s College is itself greatly honoured by his fellowship. Today, we should acknowledge with gratitude the truly transformative effect he has had on Christ’s College in the 21st century.”
The Indian high commissioner, Vikram Doraiswami, said he felt he had to come because an eminent Indian “was being suitably honoured for his contributions in this country. But there is also a personal connection… about 12 years ago, I had the good fortune to screen at the Ministry of External Affairs in Delhi the film, Fire in the Blood.”
The film reveals how Cipla’s cheap antiretroviral drugs saved the lives of millions of AIDS sufferers in Africa. The story was broken by a New York Times journalist, Donald G McNeil Jr, who was also present. He flew to Mumbai to interview Hamied in December 2000, and his “dollar a day” report caused a global stir (and upset western pharma giants who attacked Hamied as a “pirate king” as he had undercut their sky high prices) when it appeared on the front page of the New York Times on February 7, 2001.
Doraiswami said: “For those of you who have not seen this documentary directed by a Canadian filmmaker, Dylan Gray, I do urge you to watch it, because you will understand why I hold Yusuf Hamied in the highest personal esteem.”
Hamied, he remarked, had made a difference to countless lives. “And that is not something we can all tell our maker – whenever we get to see our maker.”
He allowed himself a little joke: “And in the words of my mother in Bangalore, when I told her that I was coming up for this, she said, ‘Please tell him I buy all my medicines only from Cipla.’”
In the room were two chemists – Lawford Howells and Bill Stein – who, along with Hamied, were in the “motley crowd of 100” who joined Christ’s in 1954.
Howells recalled: “All three of us came up to Cambridge to read natural sciences. Bill and I transferred to chemical engineering. Yusuf continued his research in the department of chemistry. And then (went) back to India with his doctorate.
“This year, it is 69 years since we began our sojourn in Christ’s. Yusuf and Farida plan that in 2024, our 70th anniversary, there will be another [class of ] ’54 reunion.
“Yusuf and Farida, this is your day, a day to officially open this very impressive new building which will carry your name into the future. It will be home for many generations of students to come.”
Hamied was the last to speak: “My family’s association with Cambridge University dates back to 1870, when a grand uncle of mine, Justice Syed Mahmood, studied here at Christ’s College.
“His family founded the Aligarh Muslim University in India, which was based on the same lines as Oxford and Cambridge. In subsequent years, another uncle and cousin also studied in Cambridge.
“In 1953, we met Prof Alexander Todd he was professor of chemistry at that time. This meeting (in Bombay, now Mumbai) changed the course of my life and destiny.
“When my father asked Prof Todd as to what were the minimum requirements for admission to Cambridge, he replied that ‘if we find the candidate suitable, we take him’. So my father said, ‘I’d like my son to study at Cambridge.’ Todd turned around to me and asked, ‘How old are you?’ I said, ’17, sir.’ ‘When will you be 18?’ ‘In July 1954.’ ‘Right, you’re in Christ’s College from October ’54.’
“Little did I imagine at that time that 69 years later, I would be standing here in my beloved College in front of this august audience at the inauguration of the Yusuf Hamied Court, connected to the Todd building, where the spirit of education and benevolence are linked together for eternity.
“In these twilight years of our lives, we cannot imagine a greater honour. It is an occasion that Farida and I will cherish for the rest of our lives.”