Dr. Avtar Singh Paintal M.D., Ph.D. (September 24, 1925 in Mogok, Burma – December 21, 2004 in Delhi, India) was a medical scientist who has made pioneering discoveries in the area of neurosciences and respiratory sciences.
When people, whether young or old, climb a mountain, they are easily tired. If they still over exert themselves, breathlessness overcomes them and they must rest. It has been found that, if people ignore these warnings, they sometimes die of congestion of the lungs, called pulmonary congestion.
What is it that warns an overenthusiastic climber? It is the nerve terminals in the lungs called “juxtapulmonary capillary receptors” or simply “J-receptors”.
Likewise, what is it that warns you that your stomach is full and cannot take any more food or water? It is, again the nerve terminals in the stomach, “gastrointestinal stretch receptors.”
Do you know who discovered these receptors in the human body? He is Dr. Avtar Singh Paintal, now Director of the Vallabhbhai Patel Chest Institute in Delhi. In 1981 he became the first Indian medical scientist to be elected Fellow of the Royal Society.
Paintal was born at Mogok, Burma, a place renowned in the old days for its rubies. His father was a doctor. Young Paintal had, therefore, the opportunity of seeing his father perform operations. He thus became interested in biology. Popular science books further stimulated hid interest in science. In fact, he used to plaster his parents for money to buy books.
Eventually, he secured admission to Lucknow Medical Collage and had a brilliant academic career. He, however, says now, “I wasted a lot of time trying to come first, while I should have been reading magazines like Scientific American which contain solid science.”
In 1950, on a Rockefeller fellowship, he went to Edinburgh in Britain to do his Ph.D. under Professor D. Whitteridge, an eminent medical scientist.
At Edinburgh Dr. Paintal conducted a marvelous experiment which surprised even Professor Whitteridge. He discovered a pair of “volume receptors” in the heart, whereas his guide had expected them in the lungs. These receptors control the volume of fluid in the body.
After taking his Ph.D. he retuned to India and in 1954 joined the Patel Chest Institute as Assistant Director, where he has been since. Among other things, he discovered the “J-receptors” in 1955. Dr. Paintal seems to enjoy every moment of research in his laboratory. “A person who is keen to take science should have a strong character and should avoid short-cuts in general,” is his advice to young people.
What is the importance of Dr. Paintal’s discoveries? Understanding the functioning of the “J-receptors” would help relieve persons suffering from breathlessness. At present efforts are in progress to discover a drug which could block the receptors and thus give relief to patients. The knowledge of the functioning of the gastro-intestine stretch receptors would be valuable in the study of gastric ulcers.
Dr. Paintal has also introduced new techniques in medical research which have led to the discovery of other receptors in the lungs, heart and intestines. He is trying to develop a screening test to find out who are more susceptible to sickness at high altitudes.