This article was originally published by me at Offprint here.
It says in the Upanishads that the Supreme One wanted to be many. The urge for self-dispersal is at the root of this creation. It was through this kind of creative urge that Prafulla Chandra became many in the minds of his pupils by diffusing and thereby reactivating himself in many younger minds. But this would hardly have been possible unless he had the capacity to give himself away fully to others – Rabindranath Tagore
When the annals of modern Indian science are written, the name of Prafulla Chandra Ray will be one of those in golden letters. The father of modern Indian Chemistry, the first Indian to set up a pharma company, and a pioneer of modern chemical industries in India. But Ray was more than just a mere chemist, he worked actively in the fields of education reforms, employment generation, political advancement too. He was a social reformer, fought against casteism, advocated the use of mother tongue as medium of instruction. He was elected as President of the Bangiya Sahitya Parishad, for his contribution to Bengali language. A man of simplicity who had no worldly possesions, lived in a single room all his life at the University College of Science in Kolkata. His only possessions were books, of which he was a voracious reader. He read anything he could get his hands on from science to philosophy to history to classics, and was a polyglot to boot.
While a student at Edinburgh I found to my regret that every civilized country including Japan was adding to the world’s stock of knowledge but that unhappy India was lagging behind. I dreamt a dream that, God willing, a time would come when she too would contribute her quota. Half-a-century has since then rolled by. My dream I have now the gratification of finding fairly materialized. A new era has evidently dawned upon India. Her sons have taken kindly to the zealous pursuit of different branches of science. May the torch thus kindled burn with greater brilliance from generation to generation.
The multifacted genius was born on August 2, 1861 in a small village in the district of Jessore, now located in Bangladesh. He belonged to a rather well off zamindari family, his father Harish Chandra Ray, was a man of fine tastes, a good violin player too, as was his mother Bhubanmohini Devi. For his rather liberal views, however his father was branded as a Mlechha by the more orthodox villagers. P.C. Ray grew up in what has often been called the best of times, the decade between 1860-69, an era that gave us Swami Vivekananda, Tagore, Madan Mohan Malviya, Lala Lajpat Rai among others. In 1870, his father shifted to Kolkata, a new world for Prafulla, a new phase in his life.Along with his elder brother Nalinikanta, he was admitted to the Hare School, one of the more prominent English medium schools in Kolkata then. Prafulla and his brother were ridiculed by classmates, for coming from Jessore, in those days, East Bangal was considered to be a rather backward place. Add to it a sudden attack of dysentery meant he had to leave school, and face an interruption in his studies too. However Prafulla made good use of the rest period by reading English classics and famous works in Bengali literature. And also learnt Greek and Latin too. After he recovered Ray resumed his studies, in 1874 at Albert School of Keshab Chandra Sen, and later took admission in the FA class of Metropolitan College, founded by Ishwar Chandra Vidyasgar. With his father’s financial condition in not a very good shape, Prafulla aong with his brother lived in lodges to save money.
It was at Metropolitan, that Ray would come into contact with Sir Surendranath Banerjee, regarded as the father of Indian nationalism, who was working as an English lecturer there. Later in his autobiography, Ray would state, that apart from the low fees, another reason for him joining Metropolitan(now Vidyasagar College) was Surendranath Banerjee, who at that time was an idol of sorts to most students in Kolkata. Having a keen interest in Chemistry, Prafulla performed experiments outside college with his friends too, setting up a mini lab in his lodging. Soon Ray would realize his father’s dream of studying abroad, when got the Gilchrist scholarship from Edinburgh University, one of the only two persons who got this from India. For some one ridiculed by his classmates for not knowing English, he had mastered four languages that was needed for this.
In mid 1882, Ray left for England, where he was received by Jagdish Chandra Bose, who was then a student at Cambridge. Bose and Ray would later become pretty good friends for life. At the University of Edinburgh, Ray was taught by Alexander Crum Brown. In an essay competition announced by the University on India Before and After the Mutiny, Ray criticized the British rule, for which he was not given the prize.
The English people has yet to be roused to an adequate sense of importance of events which are now taking place in India. Thoughts and ideas which pervade the upper strata of society, are now percolating through the lower; even the masses are now beginning to be moved and influenced. The latter element, it would no longer do to treat as une quantite negligeable. England unfortunately now refuses to recognize the hard and irrestible logic of facts and does her best to strangle and smother the nascent aspiration of a rising nationality .
Ray distributed copies of his essay to fellow students, the general public and also to John Bright, their finest parliamentarian. Bright acknowledged and also agreed with the points raised by Ray in his essay. In 1885, he got his BSc and later in 1887 his DSc from University of Edinburgh for his work on ” Conjugated (gepaarte) Sulphates of the Copper-magnesium Group: A Study of Isomorphous Mixtures and Molecular Combinations “. He also got the Hope Prize Scholarship that would enable him to stay for one more year and was also elected as Vice President of the Chemical Society.Ray returned back to India in 1888, as he wanted to pursue his research and share the knowledge with others too. Science in India was at it’s infancy, and there really were not much career prospects in Chemistry either. Only the Presidency College in Kolkata was offering a proper course in Chemistry, with practical studies. The existing private colleges were too few in number and did not have the sufficient resources either for practical studies. It was clearly not adequate to cope up with the major advances made in chemistry in the last half of the 19th century. Also all the opportunities were available only for Britishers, even those Indians in the Civil Service received far less pay. Some one like Jagadish Chandra Bose, was allowed entry into the Higher Services, on the condition that he would not be paid as per the grades. There was a rising uproar against this exclusion of Indians from higher services and the discriminatory attitude adopted. The British under Lord Dufferin came up with a patch work solution of creating two services Imperial for the British and Provincial for the Indians, and even then the pay in latter was far less.
Even though Ray had a letter of reccomendation from his teacher Crum Brown, and assurance from Sir Charles Bernard, Member of Indian Council, all he could manage to get was a temporary appointment as Asst Professor of Chemistry at Presidency. Even though the salary much lower, Ray accepted it, and worked in Presidency till 1916, where he retired as Head of Department for Chemistry.
After Presidency, Ray joined at the University College of Science in Kolkata, which is where he would go on to do his best work. He had already got an earlier invite in 1912 from Prof Ashutosh Mukherjee, the VC of Kolkata University to join. Ray joined as the first University Professor of Chemistry, and by this time it was equipped with some excellent laboratory equipment too. In many ways Ray was a staunch nationalist too, primarily on account of the discrimination he had faced at every stage. Though he could not directly take part in the freedom movement, he gave all his support to the Indian National Congress during the Non Cooperation Movement. Most of the top Congress leaders including Lalaji, Mahatma Gandhi were regularly in touch with him. He had a particularly close association with Gandhiji and Gokhale, and invited the former to Kolkata. He would often say “Science can wait, Swaraj cannot”.
In his career, Ray published about 120 research papers in journals of international repute. He conducted a systematic chemical analysis of rare Indian minerals, hoping to discover some of them as the missing elements in Mendeleev’s Periodic Table. He isolated mercurous nitrite in 1896, that bought him international recognition too. Another notable contribution made by him was synthesis of ammonium nitrite in it’s purest form. Till then it was believed that (NH4NO2 ) usually underwent rapid decomposition into Nitrogen and Water. William Ramsay was greatly impressed by Ray’s findings while W.E.Armstrong called him the “founder of Indian school of Chemistry”.
Ray’s real contribution to the development of chemical research in India rests not so much on his own personal research publication as on his inspiring and initiating a generation of young workers, who, dedicating themselves to a scientific career succeeded in building up what is now known as the Indian School of Chemistry-Priaydranjan Ray
In 1902, Ray published the first volume of his celebrated work The History of Hindu Chemistry, and the second volume in 1908. The motivation for writing this book, was the great French chemist, Marcellin Pierre Eugene Berthelot , who wanted to know the contribution of Hindus to the field of chemistry. Ray wrote his work based on the Rasendra Samagraha, an ancient work on Chemistry. Ray’s two volume series details the history of Chemistry in India, from the ancient times to the medieval period, somewhere around mid 16th century. Renowned international journals like Nature, Knowledge praised the book highly.
In 1892, Ray had started his Bengal Chemical and Pharmaceutical Works, more popularly called as Bengal Chemical, to create jobs for the youth. Working at a stretch, during odd hours, Ray threw himself completely into the project. His aim was to create the tonics in India, at a much lesser price than what would have to be paid for importing them. Using the latest laboratory equipment, and professional management, Ray soon built up Bengal Chemical into a limited company with it’s own capital.
Hailing from a rural area himself, Ray was always concerned about the life of the people there. He would visit the huts of poor farmers, distribute stocks of food to them in times of distress. When the Bengal famine broke out in 1922, and the British were indifferent, Ray stepped forward and appealed for help from fellow Indians. In one just one month, he managed to raise three lakh rupees for aid, women gladly gave him their jewelry, hundreds of young men volunteered to go and work in the villages on his call. Such was the appeal of P.C.Ray among masses that a European remarked “Had Gandhiji two more such Rays with him, Swaraj would have come faster”.
Ray wrote extensively on a wide variety of subjects in both English and Bengali. His Simple Zoology in 1893, is considered one of the best books on the subject. He frequently contributed in many periodicals like Basumati, Anandabazar Patrika, Manashi etc. Being a single person, Ray gave away most of his earnings in charity. He founded an annual prize in Chemistry, named after the great Buddhist alchemist Nagarjuna for a sum of Rs 10,000. He also instituted another prize for research in zoology which he named after Sir Ashutosh Mukherjee. And donated around 1.8 lakh to the University of Kolkata, for extension of Chemistry Department. And while he founded Bengal Chemicals he did not accept any salary from it, he donated all the profts for the benefit of the workers.
On June 16, 1942, Ray passed away in his single room, in University of Kolkata, surrounded by friends, admirers and students. While a pure science enthusiast, Ray always sought the application of science for practical benefits. Living a spartan life, all alone, he was a true Karma Yogi, who gave his all to the cause of Indian science.
“I have no sense of success on any large scale in things achieved…but have the sense of having worked and having found happiness in doing so. “