| Acharya Prafulla Chandra Ray
Acharya Dr Prafulla Chandra Ray, India’s great chemist and scientist, was born on August 2, 1861, into a prosperous and cultured family in Bangladesh’s (previously East Bengal’s) Radouli Katipara village. His father, Harishbabu was one of the founders of the western education in Bangladesh. He had established the Model English School. Social reformers of those times like Jatindra Mohan Tagore, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar and others were his close acquaintances. As a child Prafullababu, though of delicate built, was an intelligent boy. After primary schooling in his village, he joined Kolkata’s (Calcutta’s) Heyer School in 1870. Though he excelled in studies, poor health forced him to discontinue studies in 1874. But he continued reading, which was his passion for life. As health improved, he was admitted to Kolkata’s Albert School. In 1879, he cleared the entrance examination and joined college at Kolkata University.
For higher studies he joined Metropolitan Institute founded by Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar. Later, he joined the Government Presidency College in Kolkata. He was fond of literature. Apart from English, he also acquired mastery over Latin, French and Sanskrit. The life sketches of great personalities interested him. He once came across the biography of Benjamin Franklin (American scientist, known for his experiments in static electricity), which influenced him profoundly. He then developed an interest in science. Meanwhile, he appeared for the competitive
examination for the Gilchrist Scholarship held in India and was selected for the Scholarship award. With great difficulty he convinced his mother to grant him permission to go abroad. His father had already expressed happiness over this decision.
In 1882, Ray left for England to study science and joined the University of Edinborough. There, he came in contact with the famous chemist Alexander Brown and his interest towards chemistry deepened. He also came into contact with famous scholars-Dr’s Gibson, Dobbin and others. He studied the German language and read works by German scientists. He also met the then famous Indian scientist Jagadish Chandra Bose. They became good friends. After acquiring his BSc degree from the University of Edinborough in 1885, he undertook research in the analysis of base metals and acquired his DSc degree in 1887. He also won a few prizes and scholarships at the University of Edinborough. In 1888, he was selected as the vice-president of the university’s Chemical Society. After these shining achievements, he returned to Kolkata in 1888 and joined the Presidency College as Assistant Professor drawing a salary of Rs 250 per month.
At college, besides teaching, he took up research in various nitrites. He lived a simple life, gave up western clothing and wore the traditional Indian dress (kurta and pyjama) at college. Whatever he earned, he spent on science related activities and in helping the needy. At home, he set up a small laboratory. In 1895, his first major discovery, the making of mercuric nitrate was announced. This discovery drew attention of the scientists all over the world, carrying out research in chemistry. Concerned about poverty in India, he believed that setting up of chemical and pharmaceutical industries would not only provide gainful employment, but also make our country self-reliant. Besides, such efforts could save many lives lost due to lack of medicines.
He wished to set up small and big Industries for the unemployed science graduates. In 1901, he helped to establish the Calcutta Pottery Works to manufacture China clay pottery. Besides, he also established the Bengal Chemicals and Pharmaceutical Works Ltd. For this purpose he also set up a trust. This proved to be a boon to the country, especially to Bengal. Initially, It helped the chemistry graduates of the Presidency College and other such students to gain employment and become Independent. His second major discovery was ammonium nitrate. For his successful research in nitrite he was conferred the title Master of Nitrite by Prof Armstrong. His research In nitrite drew worldwide attention. Inspired by his Impressive achievements, in 1904, the Bengal Government sent Ray to various laboratories of European countries on a study tour. During this study tour, he also delivered lectures on his research. Moreover, Ray’s book Indian Chemical History published in 1902, became a much talked about book in the world. The Chancellor of Durham University praised the book. Ray wrote in detail about the work carried out by Indian chemists of the 13th and 14th century. The book gave a true picture of the Indian culture.
In 1911, the government conferred on him the Knighthood. In 1912, as representative of Kolkata University, he toured Europe to participate in the first conference of universities. The same year Durham University honoured him with the Doctor of Science degree. In 1918, he accepted an invitation from Chennai (Madras) University to deliver lectures. He donated the entire honorarium amount he received from the university as scholarship for the benefit of students.
He was appointed president of the Indian Social Conference held in Kolkata in 1917. He became the chairperson of the Indian Science Congress held in 1920. The same year he got an opportunity to meet Gandhiji.
Deeply Influenced by the Gandhian Ideals and the Khadl way of life, he became an ardent supporter of the nonviolent struggle. When a severe drought hit Khulna district, Ray left all his work and rushed there to take part In relief activities. He popularized the use of charkha as a means of employment among the poor. He explained the charkha economics in a novel way.
In 1921, when he completed 60 years, he donated his entire salary to the university, for the development of science and technical college. From the interest accrued on Rs 1,30,200 every year, two students are awarded the Dr P C Ray Scholarship. In 1922, he announced the Nagarjuna Award with a donation of Rs 12,000 and the ‘Sir Ashutosh Mukherjee Award’ with a donation of Rs 11,000 for the best students of microbiology and life sciences respectively. There are people who donate money as scholarship for students, but rarely will one find people who spend their money on scholarship in the name of others. They Eire truly great.
Sir Ashutosh Mukherjee was the Chief Justice of Kolkata (Calcutta) High Court. He was later appointed the Chancellor of Kolkata University. Taking into account Sir Ashutosh Mukherjee’s tireless efforts to raise the standard of science education at the university and his contribution to science, Ray decided to announce a scholarship in his honour.
In 1924, Ray, J N Mukherjee, J C Ghosh and Shanti-swaroop Bhatnagar joined hands to form the Indian Chemical Society. Ray made an initial contribution of Rs 12,000 towards the institute’s expenses. He was the president of the society for two years.
In 1932, Ray wrote his autobiography titled The Life Sketch and Experiences of a Bengali Chemist. In 1934, the London Chemical Society honoured him by offering him honorary membership. He retired from the university as a Pallt Professor of Chemistry in 1936. Commending
his services, the university appointed him as Professor Emeritus for life. He was a sage-like professor-a soft-spoken, affectionate and compassionate human being. i
On June 14, 1944, this great Indian scientist breathed his last within the university premises. The last rites of this scholarly scientist were performed near the place where Guru Rabindranath Tagore was laid to rest. Let us pay homage to this multifaceted, heroic personality who sacrificed everything for the nation.