Father of Indian Chemistry Acharya Prafulla Chandra Ray

By Nirendra Dev
PIB Features
(WBRi Interview with the author)

New Delhi, April 26, 2011 (Washington Bangla Radio / PIB-India) One often wonders if there is any other manner to start this piece on Acharya Prafulla Chandra Ray, more popular as P C Ray. Some years a community or country’s life span is blessed specially. So was the circa 1861 when Bengal and India gave birth to two illustrious sons, Rabindranath Tagore and Acharya Prafulla Chandra Ray. Born on 2 August, 1861, P C Ray turned out to be a pioneer of chemical education, chemical research and chemical industries in India.

The founder of onetime famous Bengal Chemicals, Ray was rightly called the ‘Father of Indian Chemistry’ and among his path-breaking works was ‘The History of Hindu Chemistry’. A man of firm conviction and visionary zeal, Ray truly symbolized the best synthesis of Indian tradition, philosophy and a modern scientific outlook. Someone cherishing the spirit of extreme self-denial, like that of Mahatma Gandhi, Ray did leave a lasting impression on the Father of the Nation himself.

It was not without good reason, Gandhiji once said, “It is difficult to believe that the man in simple Indian dress wearing simple manners could possibly be the great scientist and professor.” According to many scholars and experts on the life and works of P C Ray, his best works obviously include the irreplaceable autobiography entitled ‘Life and Experiences of a Bengali Chemist’ in two volumes.

The book portrays multifaceted quality of the man as much his intellect insights as the autobiography besides throwing lights on his life and times also talks about the intellectual history of Bengal in particular and India in general. Someone who went onto emerge as the founder of Indian school of chemistry, it only talks about the intellectual greatness of Ray as one finds across somewhere that Acharya himself once said that he came into the world of Chemistry by ‘accident’.

This ironical twist could be well appreciated as his activities and interest also concerned with other vital spheres of human interest and life —educational reform, industrial development, employment generation, poverty alleviation, economic freedom and political advancement of India. A social reformer to the core, he was a great critique of the prevailing caste system in the Hindu society and in his Presidential address to the Indian National Social Conference in 1917 he gave a revolutionary appeal to the masses to fight the menace of caste system.

Many may not know, Acharya P C Ray was also one of the first ardent advocates of the use of the mother tongue as medium of instruction in schools and colleges. Therefore, it was natural that in recognition of his contribution towards the advancement and enrichment of Bengali language, he was elected the President of the then prestigious Bangiya Sahitya Parishad (1931-34).

A voracious reader of literature, history and biography, besides science and especially the Chemistry, Ray could read at least half-a-dozen languages – nevertheless his favourites being English classics. He was proficient in Persian and English languages and had also workable knowledge of Sanskrit and Arabic besides being a great patron of Bengali. He had also acquired a fair knowledge of Latin and Greek.

With an inherent artistic inclination, he could also play violin. As someone not merely confining to bookish knowledge, he did rightly admit in his autobiography that “the prescribed text-books never satisfied my craving. I was a voracious devourer of books and, when I was barely 12 years old, I sometimes used to get up at 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning so that I might pore over the contents of a favourite author without disturbance”.

As stated above history and biographies left fascinating influence on him. The young P C Ray used to be enchanted with the life and works of the likes of Newton, Galileo and Benjamin Franklin – though in his own admission he did not understand much the value of their contributions then. Mid-way in his educational career, Ray’s father Harish Chandra also faced financial problems. However, that did not deter Ray to pursue his studies.

Initially, he took admission in a low-fees college Metropolitan Institute, ran under the tutelage of Ishwar Chandra Banerjee(Vidyasagar). After a few years in 1882, he appeared for a scholarship to study overseas and sailed for England to join the elite and prestigious Cambridge.

Under the title of scholarship, he was one of the first Gilchrist Scholars. In England, Ray had befriended another compatriot and a budding scientist from Bengal; Jagdish Chandra Bose.

In England he joined the University of Edinburgh as a student in the BSc class. Ray completed his BSc in 1885 and subsequently Dsc in 1887 for his work “Conjugated Sulphates of the Copper-magnesium Group: A Study of Isomorphous Mixtures and Molecular Combinations.” He was also awarded the Hope Prize Scholarship and elected Vice President of the Chemical Society of the Edinburgh University. He returned to India in 1888 with a determined zeal to pursue his researches in chemistry and share his knowledge on science and the subject with the countrymen.

In Calcutta, now Kolkata, despite general shortcomings for chemistry education then, only Presidency College gave the opportunities. In his own words, Ray later wrote, “the Presidency College was the only institution where systematic courses of lectures illustrated with experiments were given.”

Along the same time, the role of the Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science, founded by Dr. Mahendralal Sircar in 1876, also turned crucially helpful as arrangements were made for courses of lecture in Chemistry and Physics. Ray had formally joined the Presidency College as an assistant professor and later the University College of Science.

Though he had joined the government-run college, Ray did not compromise a bit on his national commitment. His admirers rightly say that in more ways than one, Acharya’s contributions for India’s Independence in the context of Kolkata would be always remembered. He also supported the Non-cooperation Movement and was in regular contact with the top leaders of the Indian National Congress including Mahatma Gandhi and the likes of Gopal Krishna Gokhale. He was also responsible for ensuring the first visit of Mahatma Gandhi to Calcutta.

Notwithstanding all these social and national pre-occupations, Acharya P C Ray pursued his research with a single minded determination. And while preparing ‘water soluable mercurous nitrate’ as an intermediate, Ray conducted systematic chemical analysis of a number of rare Indian minerals with the object of discovering in them some of the missing elements in Mendeleev’s Periodic Table. In the process he could ‘discover’ and isolate Mercurous Nitrite in 1896, which brought him international recognition. Till then, Mercurous Nitrite was known only as a compound.

“The discovery of Mercurous Nitrite opened a new chapter in my life,” Acharya wrote later. Another notable contribution made by Ray was the synthesis of ammonium nitrite in pure form. In the ultimate analysis, one can wrap up saying that Acharya P C Ray truly symbolized a unique synthesis of civilizational and cultural heritage along with a modern scientific outlook. Many years back, talking of the Acharya, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru once said, “His frail figure, his ardent patriotism, his scholarship and his simplicity impressed me greatly in my youth”.

Well, the personalities like P C Ray – even after 150 years – can always be inspirational for the youth of India in taking the country towards days of greater glories.

(PIB Features)