Chandra, Ranjit: Maclean's 1995 Honor Roll
Ranjit Chandra has twice been nominated for the Nobel Prize in medicine. He is an officer of the Order of Canada, the holder of five honorary doctorates and a visiting professor at universities on four continents. All of which counted for little on a recent afternoon as he shuttled among the small examining rooms in the Janeway Child Health Centre in St. John's, Nfld., where he heads the hospital's immunology and allergy department. The young patients likely had no idea they were being treated by one of the world's foremost specialists. "Tell me what you're going to do, doc," one crew-cut 10-year-old-boy suffering from respiratory problems asked suspiciously. The "doc" patiently explained the simple allergy test. "Now, we must wait," Chandra declared after putting several needle scratches on the boy's arm. Then, he shut the door and reached for his next patient's chart.
For someone in perpetual motion, Chandra never seems to hurry. That morning, the 57-year-old pediatrician had already spoken at a medical conference, worked on an article for one of the two international scholarly journals he edits and visited the World Health Organization Centre for Nutritional Immunology he heads in St. John's.
The theory he is painstakingly testing seems surprisingly simple: what a person eats affects their ability to resist disease. But Chandra's St. John's laboratories established for the first time a direct link between nutritional deficiencies and immune system responses. His research - which focuses particularly on how malnutrition in mothers leads to immune deficiencies in their children and how being undernourished lowers immune resistance in the elderly - has already won enough trophies and citations to fill his modest office. More honors would certainly follow if Chandra and his 15-person international team succeed in their latest quest - establishing a connection between nutrition and the HIV virus.
The son of a physician, Chandra graduated as the top high-school science student in Punjab province. As a 22-year-old medical student in India, he and a colleague discovered an ailment affecting the lungs, heart and sinuses, which still bears their names. He was in his early 30s when he first noticed that many of the children who died after being admitted to the hospital where he worked suffered from malnourishment.
Then in 1974, Memorial University lured him with an offer that surpassed competing bids in the United States and England: a full university professorship and directorship of a new clinical immunology service. Moving to Newfoundland with his wife - they have four children - gave Chandra more opportunity to continue the groundbreaking research that he began in India.
Life in St. John's has been everything he hoped for. The international honors have led to visiting professorships at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, New York Medical College, and at medical schools in Beijing, Santiago, and Naples.
Back home, when not teaching, editing, conducting research and seeing patients, life is simple and fulfilled - hour-long six a.m. walks with friends, daily vegetarian lunches with his 93-year-old father, who moved from India two years ago, and visits to the local Hindu temple where he worships. "Balance and moderation in all things is the key to health," Chandra says, just before leaving for his regular Friday afternoon badminton match. Well-chosen words - a reflection of both his personal philosophy and the essence of the research on which his fame rests.
Maclean's December 18, 1995