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
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
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.
This article is in courtesy of FreeIndia.org