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N.S. Ramamurthy of Smithtown: Research scientist helped start Indian studies center at SBU

N.S. Ramamurthy, pioneering research scientist from Smithtown, began

N.S. Ramamurthy, pioneering research scientist from Smithtown, began his career at Stony Brook in 1974. Credit: Kamala Murthy

N.S. Ramamurthy put his stamp on Stony Brook University.

A pioneering research scientist during a nearly 30-year career at Stony Brook’s School of Dental Medicine, his work led to important discoveries in oral health and antibiotics. He also helped created a thriving center for Indian studies at the university.

Ramamurthy, 80, of Smithtown, died April 24 at Stony Brook University Hospital, after a monthlong battle with COVID-19 and related complications, his family said. He retired in 2003 as a research professor in the Department of Oral Biology and Pathology at the School of Dental Medicine.

Ramamurthy began his career at Stony Brook on July 1, 1974, after he was recruited from a university in Winnipeg, Canada. Widely recognized as an expert in animal models of diabetes and its complications, he helped develop new therapeutics to inhibit pathologic collagen breakdown, bone loss, and chronic inflammation in multiple oral and systemic diseases.

In a 1989 research breakthrough chronicled by The New York Times as well as medical journals, Ramamurthy’s work as part of a team at Stony Brook on the non-antibiotic properties of tetracyclines resulted in 29 patents and the development of two drugs: Periostat, an oral prescription used in the treatment of adult periodontal diseases, and Oracea, which treats acne. 

Lorne Golub, who led the tetracyclines research and is currently a SUNY distinguished professor in Stony Brook’s Department of Oral Biology and Pathology, said he recruited Ramamurthy to come to Stony Brook work on the project.

“He was absolutely critical,” Golub said. “I don’t think I’ve ever met a more talented individual in terms of using animal models in research. And he had enormous sympathy and empathy.”

In 1997, he and others at Stony Brook started what is now the Mattoo Center for India Studies at Stony Brook, which has grown into a major national resource on India with more than 33 courses offered each year on Indian literature, politics, languages and arts.

“He was highly respected by the community because they all saw how hard he worked without seeking the limelight,” said S.N. Sridhar, a SUNY distinguished service professor at Stony Brook, who also helped found the center. “He was selfless, completely selfless. No boasting, no ego. Those kinds of people are very rare.”

More than a brilliant researcher, as his colleagues and family remembered, “Dr. Rama,” as he was called, was a warm presence, a mentor to many students and a hands-on father who frequently brought his children to their many activities like piano and ballet and cooked them meals as his wife pursued a postsecondary education.

“All of his former students viewed him as a secondary father,” said one of his daughters, Kamala Murthy of Montclair, New Jersey. “He treated everyone like his family.”

Ramamurthy used an ancient saying in Sanskrit as his email signature, which “truly embodied him as a person,” said Murthy.

“Only small men discriminate saying: One is a relative; the other is a stranger. For those who live magnanimously, the entire world constitutes but a family.”

The son of N.K Sethurama Iyer and Namagiri Lakshmi, he was born Nov. 9, 1939, and was raised in the village of Nangavaram in the southern India state of Tamil Nadu with his older brother and five sisters.

He grew up dreaming of becoming a doctor, but his place in the Brahmin caste limited his admission chances to medical school, his family said. While he was admitted to medical school in northern India, it was too expensive.

Ramamurthy graduated from Bishop Heber High School (now Bishop Heber College) in Tiruchirappalli, in Tamil Nadu. In 1962, he earned a bachelor of veterinary science from the University of Madras (now Chennai). In 1965, he earned a master of veterinary science from the University of Agra in northern India, majoring in animal physiology and animal nutrition. 

He made a career in India as an on-call veterinarian, mostly caring for livestock.

When he got wind of the Canadian government offering scholarships to students who wanted to pursue post-bachelor degrees in sciences, he went for it.

In December 1970, Ramamurthy received his doctorate in animal nutrition and biochemistry in the Department of Animal Science, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, Canada.

In a graduate biochemistry class during his doctoral studies in September of 1968, he met his future wife, Sharon Oliver-Murthy, who was only one of two women in the class. In January 1971, Ramamurthy became a Medical Research Council of Canada postdoctoral fellow at the School of Dental Medicine in Winnipeg. 

In addition to his wife and daughter Kamala Murthy, Ramamurthy is survived by another daughter, Sharmila Murthy, of Brookline, Massachusetts; four sisters; and five grandchildren.