An Indian scientist who won fame in many countries. Eighty years ago he began the manufacture of medicines in India. A great teacher, great man and a true patriot. A Professor of Chemistry, a pioneer in the field of pharmaceutical industry in India who started making chemicals at home A scientist who won international acclaim. His dwelling – a simple room on the first floor of the college in which he was teaching; his household -students who could not afford to stay elsewhere. His salary – donation to the department of Chemistry.
Prafulla Chandra was born on 2nd August 1861 in Raruli-Katipara, a village in the District of Khulna (now in Bangladesh). His father – Harish Chandra Ray – a landlord with liberal views, belonged to a wealthy cultured family. In 1870 Harish Chandra moved his family to Calcutta so that his sons could have higher education. Here, Prafulla Chandra was admitted to the Hare School. He took a great interest in books and read a vast number of them. But a severe attack of dysentery forced him to leave the school. The disease was slowly overcome, but it permanently injured his health; he became a life-long sufferer from chronic indigestion and sleeplessness. When barely ten years old, he learnt Latin and Greek. He also studied the histories of England, Rome and Spain. Two years later, Prafulla Chandra resumed his studies and in 1874 joined the Albert School. But Prafulla Chandra suddenly left for his village, without sitting for the examinations. In the village he mixed with the simple villagers and shared their joys and sorrows. He helped them in many ways.
Prafulla Chandra, however, returned to Calcutta in 1876 and resumed his studies at the Albert School. In 1879 he passed the Entrance Examination and joined the Metropolitan Institute (now called Vidyasagar College). Harish Chandra’s financial situation grew worse and worse. He was forced to sell the ancestral property, to pay his creditors. At the Metropolitan Institute, Prafulla Chandra came under the influence of great teachers like Surendranath Banerjee and Prasannakumar Lahiri. They instilled in him a burning desire to achieve the freedom of India and to improve the condition of the people. While pursuing his studies in the Metropolitan Institute, Prafulla Chandra used to attend lectures by Alexander Pedlar on Chemistry, in the Presidency College. Pedlar was an inspiring teacher and a skilful experimentalist. His lectures influenced Prafulla Chandra to take up Chemistry for his higher studies in B.A., although his first love was literature. However, he continued to take interest in literature, and taught himself Latin and French at home. Sanskrit was compulsory in the college. Thus, he learnt several languages very well.
The London University used to conduct competitive examinations in those days for the ‘Gilchrist Prize Scholarship’. The successful candidate could go abroad for higher studies. Prafulla Chandra got the scholarship and in 1882 Prafulla Chandra left for Britain. Prafulla Chandra joined the B.Sc. Class in the University at Ediburg. He was very much influenced by the Professor of Chemistry, Mr. Crum Brown, at the University. Chemistry became his first love. Prafulla Chandra completed B.Sc. in 1885 and started research work to receive D.Sc. in 1887. He was 27 years old at the time. He received the Hope Prize Scholarship of the University, which enabled him to continue his work in the University for another year.
In 1888 Prafulla Chandra returned to India. He had obtained letters of introduction from his Principal and Professors. It was his hope that with their aid he would be able to get a good position in the education department. But in those days all the high places in this department were reserved for Englishmen. Though Prafulla Chandra had a Doctorate in Science, it became difficult for him to receive recognition in his own country. For about a year he spent his time working with his famous friend Jagadish Chandra Bose in his laboratory.
In 1889 Prafulla Chandra was appointed as Assistant Professor of Chemistry in the Presidency College at Calcutta. He soon earned a great reputation as a successful and inspiring teacher. His lectures glowed with humor and wit. He would recite poems of Rabindranath Tagore and quote slokas from ‘Rasa Ratnakara’, a book written by the ancient Indian Chemist Nagarjuna. To demonstrate that, on burning, a bone becomes pure Calcium Phosphate, free from all animal matter, he would put a pinch of the ashes into his mouth! Prafulla Chandra was never tired of saying that the progress of India could be achieved only by industrialization. He advocated the use of the native language as the medium of instruction in schools. For this, he began to write science texts-books in Bengali. He used to tell the story of the famous Russian Chemist Mendeleef, who is famous for his Periodic Law. He first published the results of his work in the Russian language. This compelled the scientists of other nations to learn Russian in order to know his important discovery. If we develop new knowledge, people of other countries will be forced to learn our languages.
Eighty-five years ago Prafulla Chandra came to realize that the progress of India was linked with industrialization. Without this there could be no salvation. Even drugs for Indian patients had to come from foreign countries at that time. This put money into the pockets of the merchants of those countries. This had to be stopped. Drugs had to be manufactured in India. Prafulla Chandra wanted a beginning to be made at once. Prafulla Chandra was not rich. He prepared some chemicals at home. His work grew so fast that a separate company had to be formed. But he needed capital – a capital of only eight hundred rupees. But it became difficult to raise even this small amount. In spite of all these difficulties he founded ‘The Bengal Chemical and Pharmaceutical Works’.
In 1894 his father died. This was a great blow to Prafulla Chandra. The father was still in debts and thousands of rupees were needed. Only a small part of the property remained. Even this was sold, so that the debts could be repaid. Prafulla Chandra bravely continued to run the new factory. At first it was difficult to sell the chemicals made there. They could not compete with the imported materials. But some friends, chiefly Dr. Amulya Charan Bose, supported his venture. Dr. Bose was a leading medical practitioner and he enlisted the support of many other doctors. They, too, started using the chemicals made by the new Indian firm. Many graduates in Chemistry joined the staff of the factory and worked hard for its improvement. Bengal Chemical became a famous factory.
Prafulla Chandra’s contribution to Indian industry was even greater. Directly or indirectly he helped to start many other factories. Textile mills, soap factories, sugar factories, chemical industries, ceramic factories and publishing houses were set up at the time with his active co-operation. He was the driving force behind the industrialization of the country, which began at that time. During all these years, he was also actively engaged in research in his laboratory at Presidency College. His publications on Mercurous Nitrite and its derivatives brought him recognition from all over the world. He guided many students in their research in his laboratory. Even famous scientific journals abroad began to publish their scientific papers. There was much that thought that Indians were backward in scientific knowledge and had received it only recently from the West. But Prafulla Chandra said that Indians knew little about there past history. They did not know much about the devotion and industry with which our ancestors developed knowledge. Prafulla Chandra was from the beginning interested in the work of the early Hindu chemists. After reading the famous book ‘Greek Alchemy’ by the great French scientist Berthelot his interest in Hindu Chemistry grew into a passion. He started reading many ancient books in Sanskrit, Pali, Bengali, and other languages, which contained information on the
subject. He wrote an article about a famous Sanskrit treatise ‘Rasendrasara Sangraha’ and sent it to Berthelot. The French scientist published it with an introduction praising it as an extremely interesting article. He wrote to Prafulla Chandra asking him to continue his research into the ancient texts and to publish a whole book on Hindu Chemistry, After several years of study, Prafulla Chandra published his famous book, – ‘The History of Hindu Chemistry’ which received great praise from scientists all over the world. In this book he has given a very interesting account to show that Hindu scientists knew about the manufacture of steel, about distillation, salts, mercury sulfides etc., from very early times.
In 1901 Prafulla Chandra met Mahatma Gandhi for the first time in the house of a mutual friend, Gopala Krishna Gokhale. Gandhiji had just then returned from South Africa. Prafulla Chandra developed great reverence for Gandhiji at this very first meeting. Gandhiji’s simplicity, patriotism and devotion to duty appealed to him very much. He learnt that it was easy to talk about truth but that it is far nobler to practice it in one’s life. Gandhiji also had great regard for Prafulla Chandra. He knew how hard he worked to help the poor and the needy. When floods caused great suffering and destruction, Prafulla Chandra worked very hard to bring relief to the victims. This made Gandhiji call him a ‘Doctor of Floods’!
In 1904 Prafulla Chandra proceeded to Europe on a study tour and visited many famous chemical laboratories. In England, Germany, France and other European countries, he was welcomed by scientists at universities and research institutions. He had useful discussions with them. They praised his famous work on Mercurous Nitrite, Ammonium Nitrite etc. Some universities conferred honorary Doctorates on him. He made the acquaintance of famous scientists like William Ramsay, James Dewar, Perkin, Van’t Hoff and Berthelot. In 1912 Prafulla Chandra visited London again to represent the University of Calcutta at the Congress of the Universities of the British Empire. He delivered speeches at the Congress and later before the Chemical Society. Sir William Ramsay congratulated him on his fine work. Prafulla Chandra said on one occasion that when the people of Europe did not know how to make clothes, and were still wearing animal skins and wandering in forests, Indian scientists were manu- facturing wonderful chemicals. This is something we should be proud of. But Prafulla Chandra also knew that it is not enough to be proud of our past. We should follow the example of our ancestors and seek knowledge and progress in science.
Prafulla Chandra did not rest content with giving such advice. He worked hard to practice it. In 1916 he retired from the Presidency College. Sir Asuthosh Mukherjee, the vice-chancellor of Calcutta University, appointed him as professor of Chemistry at the University Science College. Here Prafulla Chandra trained many talented students and with them made famous discoveries. The University Science College had been started just then. Facilities for experiments were very meager. Hence it became difficult to do advanced work. According to the rules of the college, all the Professors had to be Indians. Perhaps because of this the British Government did not make adequate grants to the college. However, Prafulla Chandra and his students used whatever facilities were available and did remarkable work. And soon the college became very famous. Prafulla Chandra worked in this college for twenty years. He remained a bachelor all his life.
All these twenty years he lived in a simple room on the first floor of the college. Some of his students who were poor and could not live anywhere else shared his room. In 1936, when he was 75 years old, he retired from the Professorship.
In 1921 when Prafulla Chandra reached 60 years he donated, in advance, all his salary for the rest of his service in the University to the development of the Department of Chemistry and to the creation of two research fellowships. In addition, he gave ten thousand rupees for an annual research prize in Chemistry named after the great Indian Chemist Nagarjuna and another ten thousand for a research prize in Biology named after Sir Asuthosh Mukherjee. In recognition of Prafulla Chandra’s great work he was elected President of Indian Science Congress and Indian Chemical Society more than once. Many Indian and Western Universities conferred honorary doctorates on him. Prafulla Chandra was a great scientist. But he had several other interests also, in which he shone equally well. He had an abiding interest in literature. He knew by heart many passages from Shakespeare’s plays and the poems of Tagore and of Madhusudan Dutt. He was well read in English literature. In 1932 he wrote his autobiography in English and named it ‘The Life and Experience of a Bengali Chemist’. It was praised every where. Later, he himself translated it into Bengali. The book was called ‘Atma Charita’. In recognition of his service to Bengali literature he was twice elected President of the Bengali Literary Conference.Prafulla Chandra was the President of the National Council of Education. He believed that it was not enough for students to acquire degrees like Bachelor of Science or Master of Science; they should endeavor to acquire real knowledge. In his opinion, to take degrees just to get government jobs was a waste. The students should rather get technical education and start their own business. Young men should enter trade and industries by themselves.
Prafulla Chandra was very affectionate towards his students. He was overjoyed when they received awards of honors. He used to repeat the Sanskrit saying, ‘A man may desire victory always but he should welcome defeat at the hands of his own disciples’. Famous Indian scientists like Meghnad Saha and Shanthi Swarup Bhatnagar were among his students.
Prafulla Chandra followed a regular timetable. He had strict control over his diet and habits, and was regular in his exercises, He would not waste time. He always wore clean Khadi clothes. But they were often not passed. He would not allow others to serve him. He himself washed his clothes and polished his shoes.
Acharya Prafulla Chandra Ray passed away on the 16th of June 1944; he died in the same room he had occupied for twenty-five years. He was 83 years old at the time.