Father of Ancient Indian Chemistry

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Acharya Prafulla Chandra Ray 

-Dr Subodh Mahanti

A more remarkable career than that of P.C. Ray could not well be chronicled”, wrote Nature, the famous international scientific journal, while commenting on the first volume of Ray’s autobiography.Prafulla Chandra Ray was the founder of the Indian School of modern chemistry. He was a pioneer of chemical industries in India. Ray’s activities were not confined to his laboratory and teaching. His activities concerned with all spheres of human interest—educational reform, industrial development, employment generation & poverty alleviation, economic freedom and political advancement of the country. He was a pioneer in social reform in the country. He took to social service with a missionary zeal. He was a great critique of the prevailing caste system in the Hindu society.In his Presidential address to the Indian National Social Conference in 1917 he made a passionate appeal for removal of the caste system from the Hindu society. Ray was an ardent advocate of the use of the mother tongue as medium of instruction in schools and colleges. In recognition of his contribution towards the advancement and enrichment of Bengali language, he was elected the General President of the Bangiya Sahitya Parishad (1931-34). Ray symbolized the best of Indian tradition and philosophy.

He lived a life of extreme self-denial. He became a symbol of plain living. Mahatma Gandhi said: “It is difficult to believe that the man in simple Indian dress wearing simple manners could possibly be the great scientist and professor.” He lived in a single room at the University College of Science. Its furniture consisted of an iron bedstead, a small table, a smaller chair and an almirah with shelves full of books, most of which were English classics.

Ray was a voracious reader of literature, history and biography. He could read half-a-dozen languages. He once claimed that he ‘became a chemist almost by mistake.’

There is no better document to know about Ray and his thoughts and accomplishments than his autobiography entitled Life and Experiences of a Bengali Chemist in two volumes. Besides giving his life-sketch, it gives glimpses of the intellectual history of Bengal in particular and India in general. “It is, in fact, a history of intellectual renaissance in Bengal as part of the larger enlightenment of India in the nineteenth century and in the early decades of the twentieth century.” In the preface to his autobiography Ray wrote: “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.”

Prafulla Chandra Ray was born on August 2, 1861 in a village in the district of Jessore (subsequently of Khulna), now in Bangladesh. About his village Ray, in his autobiography, wrote: “My native village is Raruli, in the district of Jessore (at present Khulna). It is situated on the banks of the river Kapotakshi, which follows a meandering course for forty miles (only 16 miles as the crow flies) till it reaches Sagardari, the birth place of our great poet Madhusudan Datta. And higher up lies the village of Polua-Magura known of late years as Amritabazaar, the birth place of Sisir Kumar Ghosh, the veteran journalist. The village adjoining Raruli on the north is Katipara, the residence of the Zemindars of the Ghosh family, from which came the mother of Madhusudan. These two villages are often hyphened together and called Raruli-Katipara.” Ray was 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 (Quoted in P. C. Ray by J. Sen Gupta, National Book Trust, 1972) As pioneer of chemical education, chemical research and chemical industries in India, and more possibly as a self-denying and dedicated worker for the uplift and emancipation of the country, and last but not least as a man of austere habits and sterling character with dynamic sympathy for the poor and down-trodden, ever alert to the call of humanity,Prafulla Chandra Ray occupied a unique position in India in his days. P. Ray in Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the National Institute of Sciences of India (1966) Acharya Ray was one of the giants of old, and more particularly, he was a shining light in the field of science. His frail figure, his ardent patriotism, his scholarship and his simplicity impressed me greatly in my youth. Jawaharlal Nehru P.C. Ray “A greatly influenced by his parents. His father Harish Chandra Ray, a scion of a local zemindar, was a man of taste, learning and liberal views. He was an accomplished violin player. He was proficient in Persian and English languages and he had also workable knowledge of Sanskrit and Arabic. Harish Chandra was closely associated with the cultural and intellectual leaders of those days in Bengal. For his liberal views Harish Chandra was branded a mlechcha (foreign heretic) by his fellow villagers. Ray’s mother, Bhubanmohini Devi was also an accomplished lady of enlightened views.

The decade of 1860-69 the nineteenth century was very important in India’s history. Thus, Animesh Chakraborty, a well-known inorganic chemist, wrote : “It was the best of times – the second half of the nineteenth century. The decade of 1860-69 alone saw the birth of Rabindranath Tagore, Motilal Nehru Swami Vivekananda, Madan Mohan Malaviya, Asutosh Mookerjee,Lala Lajpat Rai, Srinivasa Sastri and Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. And of Prafulla Chandra Ray.A season of light and hope was descending on a languishing India.”
Ray’s early education was in his village school, founded by his father. However, he made very little progress in this school as he used to be frequently absent from the school. In 1870 his father permanently shifted to Kolkata (then Calcutta) mainly for proper education of his children. Describing his first impression of Kolkata, Ray, in his autobiography, wrote: “In August 1870, I came to Calcutta for the first time…I spent the month of August in Calcutta, to my great joy, almost every day seeing new sights. I caught glimpses of a new world. A panorama of gorgeous vistas was opened to me. The new water-works had just been completed and the town enjoyed the blessings of a liberal supply of filtered drinking water; the orthodox Hindu still hesitated to make use of it as being impure; but the superior quality of water carried its own recommendation; by slow degrees, reason and convenience triumphed over prejudice, and its use became almost universal. The construction of underground drains had just been taken in hand.”

In 1871, Ray and his elder brother Nalinikanta, were admitted into the Hare School, founded by David Hare, then located in the onestory building. The school was shifted to its present location in 1872. David Hare was also associated with the establishment of Hindu College. David Hare himself was not educated. He was neither a Government servant nor a Christian missionary. However, he played a very important role in spreading western education in Bengal. S. K. Dey in an article entitled ‘The Hindu College and the Reforming Young Bengal’ in Acharya Ray 70th Birthday Commemoration Volume wrote: “The facts of David Hare’s life are very few and can be told very briefly. Son of a watchmaker in London, who had married an Aberdeen lady, Hare came out to Calcutta in 1800 at the age of twentyfive as a watchmaker; and, after following that profession for several years he made over his concern (before 1816) to his friend, one Mr. Grey, under whose roof he led his bachelor life till his death on June 1, 1842 at the age of sixty-seven. Instead of returning to his native country, like the rest of his countrymen, with the competence he had acquired, he adopted for his own the country of his sojourn, and cheerfully devoted the remainder of his life to the one object dear to himself, namely, the spread of Western education, for which he spared neither personal trouble, nor money, nor influence.”
From his autobiography we know that he used to be ridiculed by his classmates in Hare School. To quote Ray: “When my class-mates came to know that I hailed from the district of Jessore, I at once became their laughing-stock and the butt of ridicule. I was nick-named Bangal and various faults of omission ascribed to the unfortunate people of East Bengal began to be laid at my door. A Scotch rustic or a Yorkshire lad with his peculiar brogue and queer manners, when he suddenly found himself in the midst of cockney youngsters, a century ago, was I suppose somewhat in a similar predicament. At that time even the very germs of what is known as the national awakening did not exist, and a very few people cared to know that my native district had begotten and sheltered in its bossom two great warriors (Raja Protapaditya and Raja Sitaram Ray), who had raised the standard of revolt against the Great Moghul, or his Viceroy….” In fact two other luminaries namely Madhusudan Datta, the great poet (regarded as Milton of Bengal) and Dinabandhu Mitra the then greatest living dramatist hailed from his district. It is important to take note of Ray’s observation because even today in India people of one region are ignorant of historical and cultural background of the other regions. This kind of ignorance is a stumbling block in the way of national integration. Ray did not stay long in this school. A violent attack of dysentery not only forced him to leave the school but made him to interrupt his regular study for two years. However, he fully utilized this time by reading English classics and the literary and historical writings in Bengali. During this period Inner quadrangle of P.C. Ray’s ancestral house he also learnt Latin and Greek. Ray was a voracious reader. To quote him: “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…History and biography have even now a fascination for me. I read Chambers’ Biography right through several times. The lives of Newton, Galileo—although at that time I did not understand or realize the value of their contributions—interested me much. Sir Wm. Jones, John Leyden and their linguistic attainments deeply impressed me as also the life of Franklin. The answer of Jones’ mother to his interrogations “read and you will know” also was not lost upon me. Benjamin Franklin has been my special favourite ever since my boyhood…The career of this great Pennsylvanian—how he began his life as an ill-paid compositor and by sheer perseverance and indomitable energy rose to be a leading man in his country—has ever been an object-lesson to me.”
In 1874 Ray resumed his regular study but not in Hare School. He joined the Albert School of Keshab Chandra Sen the founder of Brahmo Samaj. In 1879 he passed the Entrance Examination from Albert School. He took admission in the First Arts (FA) Class of the Metropolitan College (now named Vidyasagar College), founded by Pandit Iswarchandra Vidyasagar. One of the reasons for taking admission in this colleges was the low tuition fees. Because by that time Ray’s father’s financial situation had considerably deteriorated. In fact he had to close down his Calcutta establishment and return to his native village and his sons started living in lodges. But then the financial situation was not the only consideration. In the Metropolitan College, Ray came under the influence of Surendra Nath Banerjee, widely regarded as the father of Indian nationalism. Surendra Nath, who used to be regarded as an ‘idol’ by the students of Bengal, taught English literature in the Metropolitan College. Ray, while explaining the reasons for taking admission in this college, wrote: “I took my admission into the Metropolitan Institution of Pandit Iswarchandra Vidyasagar, the college department of which had recently been opened. This was the first bold experiment in India of making high education as cheap as secondary education. The fee in the college was same as in the school, namely three rupees. More than one reason determined my choice of Vidyasagar’s College. In the first place the Metropolitan Institution was a national institution and something we could look upon as our own; in the second place Surendranath Bannerjee, who was almost the god of our idolatry, was Professor of English prose literature and Prasanta Kumar Lahiri, a distinguished pupil of Tawney (of the Presidency College, a learned Shakesperean scholar) was Professor of poetry. I took care, however, to attend lectures on Chemistry in the First Arts Course and both Chemistry and Physics in the Bachelor of Arts Course in the Presidency College as an external student. Chemistry was then a compulsory branch in the F.A. Course. Mr. (afterwards Sir Alexander) Pedler was a first-rate hand in experiments; his manipulative skill was of a high order. I began almost unconsciously to be attracted to this branch of science.” Ray even tried to perform some experiments himself. Thus he wrote in his autobiography: “Not content with merely seeing the experiments performed in theclass-room, myself and a fellow student set up a miniature laboratory in the lodgings of the latter and we took delight in reproducing some of them. Once we improved an oxyhydrogen blow-pipe out of an ordinary thin tinned sheet of iron with the aid of a tinker. With such crude apparatus the leakage of oxygen into the hydrogen tube could not be prevented and a terrible explosion took place when the mixture was lighted. Fortunately, we escaped unhurt. Although Roscoe’s Elementary Lessons was the text, I took care to have about me and go through as many works on Chemistry as I lay my hands on.”

Ray’s father Harish Chandra used to harbour an ambition to send at least one of his sons to England for higher education. As his economic situation deteriorated he had no scope to realize his dreams. However, Prafulla Chandra knew about his father’s dreams and decided to prepare for the Gilchrist Scholarship — a scholarship awarded by the Edinburgh University, which was open to students all over the world. While the examination for the scholarship was equivalent to the Matriculation standard of the London University, it required knowledge of at least four languages. It is said that though being ridiculed by his classmates, Ray continued with the preparation for the examination. Ray came out successfully in the competition. He was one of the two winners of the Scholarship from India. The other candidate was one Bahadurjee from Mumbai. They were the first Gilchrist Scholars from India. Ray’s parents were too glad to give their consent for his going to England. And so armed with the Scholarship Ray sailed for England by S.S. California in the middle of 1882. Ray was received in England by Jagadis Chandra Bose, who had already been a student of the Cambridge University for about couple of years. Cambridge was expensive and it was meant for the elite. Both Bose and Ray became great friends for the rest of their lives. In England he joined the University of Edinburgh as a student in the BSc class. He was taught by Alexander Crum Brown (1838-1922).
While a student in BSc Ray decided to take part in the essay competition announced by the Lord Rector of the Edinburgh University. The title of the essay to be written was “India before and after the Mutiny”. The essay was very critical of the British Rule in India. In those days it required a lot of conviction and courage to write such an essay. It demonstrated Ray’s patriotic vigour. Ray did not get the prize. In his autobiography he wrote: “The prize was awarded to a rival competitor, but my essay as well another’s was bracketed together as proxime accesserunt (nearest approach to the best).”

In his essay Ray wrote: “…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… Between the ideal and actual, he (i.e. an Indian) sees a gulf intervening; he finds it difficult to reconcile the practice of British statesmen with their profession…Compromises, half-measures and halting policies have been tried elsewhere with signal failure. Fifty years of concession to Ireland have only served to embitter her feelings against Great Britain. Will the lesson which the sister island has taught us be lost upon India?”

Ray distributed copies of his printed essay among the University students and the general public. The October 28, 1886 issue of The Scotsman remarked: “It is most interesting little volume and we do not profess to wonder in the least that it has earned a considerable amount of popularity. It contains information in reference to India which will not be found elsewhere, and it is deserving of the utmost notice.” Ray also sent a copy of his Essay to John Bright, the great parliamentarian. Bright not only acknowledged the receipt but also stated that he agreed with the views expressed by Ray in his essay. A summary of Bright’s letter flashed by Reuter is quoted below: “I regret with you and condemn the course of Lord Dufferin in Burma. It is a renewal of the old system of crime and guilt, which we had hoped, had been for ever abandoned. There is an ignorance on the part of public in this country and great selfishness here and in India as to our true interests in India. The departures from morality and true statesmanship will bring about calamity and perhaps ruin, which our children may witness and deplore.” It was published in all the leading newspapers of England under the head-line “John Bright’s letter to an Indian Student”. The letter was hotly debated in the political circle of England. In 1886 Ray published his “Essay on India” in the form of a booklet.

In 1885 Ray obtained his BSc degree and in 1887 he was awarded the DSc degree of the University of Edinburgh in recognition of his work on “Conjugated (gepaarte) Sulphates of the Copper-magnesium Group: A Study of Isomorphous Mixtures and Molecular Combinations.” He was awarded the Hope Prize Scholarship which enabled him to stay one more year in England. He was also elected Vice President of the Chemical Society of the Edinburgh University.

After spending about 6 years Ray returned to India in 1888. His aim was to pursue his researches in chemistry and share his knowledge with others, to be in a chemistry class or a laboratory. But in those days Indian science was at its infancy. In chemistry there was not much career prospects. Moreover it was extremely difficult for an Indian to secure a berth in the Educational Service. The situation was aptly described by Ray himself. Ray in his autobiography wrote: “Chemistry was obtaining slow recognition as an important branch of study in our colleges; but the Presidency College was the only institution where systematic courses of lectures illustrated with experiments were given. Private colleges wer
e few in number and their resources being limited could not afford to open Science Departments. Students from these colleges were, however, allowed to attend the lectures at the Presidency College on payment of nominal fees. The Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science, founded by Dr. Mahendralal Sircar in 1876, also made arrangements for courses of lecture in Chemistry and Physics and as these were open to public, Dr. Sircar, I believe, made a representation to the Government requesting it to discontinue allowing students from private colleges to attend lectures at the Presidency College as otherwise the Science Association lecture benches could be more or less empty. This is no reflection on the Science Association but rather on the mentality of the average Indian youth; unless a subject is prescribed for examination no one would care to have anything to do with it. The Government also would have compelled to adopt this course on its own initiative as admissions where getting larger year to year and B. Course (science) growing to be popular. In the eighties of the last century chemistry had made gigantic strides and it was realized that the mere delivery of elementary courses of lecture would not be adequate to cope with the requirements and that special arrangements must be made for practical and laboratory teaching. Peddler had on these grounds written to the Director of Public Instruction to move the Bengal Government for the sanction of an additional Professor. It was at this psychological moment that I returned from Edinburgh as an applicant for a post.”

Whatever opportunities were available in the educational institutions were mostly for Britishers. The existing situation was described by Ray in the following words: “Indians of approved merit and sometimes aristocratic `noodles’, were drafted into the Civil Service who would draw two-thirds the pay of the grade. The competitive examination in England was to 
be thrown open only to Britons (including of course the Irish). These regulations also permeated the Educational Service. Jagadis Chandra Bose, who had returned home three years before me, after a brilliant career at Cambridge and London, and who had to encounter untold hardships in entering the Higher Service in the land of his birth, was only allowed to cross its threshold on condition that he should waive his claim to the full pay of the grade and draw on the two-thirds scale. It was only in rare cases that the children of the soil were admitted to the Higher services, which made darkness more visible. As a rule Indians of even approved merit could only enter the subordinate branch of the service. Agitation in India as also in the British Parliament by friends of India against the virtual exclusion of Indians could no longer be ignored. The government of Lord Dufferin under instructions from the Secretary of State appointed the “Public Service Commission” with a view to devise means for finding extended employments for Indians. The recommendations of the Commission were of the nature of a compromise; whatever might be done to satisfy he aspirations of the Indians, every care must be taken to safeguard the interests and privileges of the dominant race. Two distinct services were created—one the Imperial and the other the Provincial. The former was meant to be reserved for Britishers and the latter for the Indians; in the former again the average emoluments worked out to nearly double that of the latter.”

Under the circumstances described above Ray could not think of a bright prospect. From England he had brought a letter of recommendation from his teacher Crum Brown. He had also obtained assurance of assistance from Sir Charles Bernard, Member, Indian Council, in securing a position. Sir Bernard also introduced Ray to B. H. Tawney, the Principal of Presidency College, the premier college of Kolkata, who was on leave in London. Tawney, who happened to be a relation of Sir Bernard, wrote to Sir Alfred Croft, the Director of Public Instruction, recommending the case of Ray. Tawney wrote: “I am sure Dr. Ray would prove a valuable acquisition to the Department if he could be taken in.” After coming to Kolkata Ray met Alfred Croft, Tawney and Sir Alexander Pedler, the then Professor of Chemistry in the Presidency College. He also tried to get an audience with the then Governor of Bengal, Sir Stewart Bayley. Finally he was given a temporary appointment as Assistant Professor of Chemistry at the Presidency College on a monthly salary of Rs.250/- under the Provincial Educational Service. Unlike his friend Jagadis Chandra Bose, Ray accepted the appointment and took up his duties at the Presidency College in July 1889.

So for about a year that is from August 1888 to June 1889 Ray was without any occupation. To know how he spent the time we quote Ray: “During this period I was mostly under the hospitable roof of Dr. and Mrs. Jagadis Chandra Bose and I spent the time in reading chemical literature and in botanising. I collected and identified several specimens of plants round about Calcutta with the aid of Roxburgh’s Flora Indica and Hokker’s Genera Plantarum.” Ray retired from the Presidency College in 1916 as Professor and Head of the Department of Chemistry.

After retiring from the Presidency College Ray joined the University College of Science. As early as in 1912 Asutosh Mookerjee had invited Ray to join the University College of Science as the first University Professor. In his invitation letter, Mookerjee wrote: “It may be in your recollection that on the 24th February last, when the question of the establishment of University Professorships was before the Senate you expressed your regret that no provision was made for a Chair of Science. I assured you, on the spur of the moment, that a Chair of Science might come sooner than you expected. You will be pleased to hear that my prophecy has 
been literary fulfilled and that what was your ambition and my ambition has been realized. We have founded two Professorships, one of Chemistry, the other of Physics. We have also decided to establish—at once a University Research Laboratory. All this we are able to do by reason of the munificence of Mr. Palit, supplemented by a grant of two and a half lacs from our Reserve Fund. The whole position is explained in the statement I made before the Senate last Saturday; a copy is enclosed herewith. I have now great pleasure in inviting you to be the first University Professor of Chemistry, and I feel confident that you will accept my offer. I need hardly add that I shall arrange matters in such a way that you be not a loser from a pecuniary point of view. As soon as you return, we shall, with your assistance, prepare plans for the proposed laboratory and begin to build as early and as quickly as practicable. It would be an advantage, if before your return, you could make time to see some of the best laboratories in Great Britain or on the Continent.” Ray received the letter in England, where he had gone as delegate of the Calcutta University to the Congress of the Universities of the British Empire and also to the 250th anniversary of the Royal Society. In response to Asutosh Mookerjee’s letter Ray wrote to the following effect: “I look upon the proposed College of Science as the realization of the dream of my life and it will not only be my duty but a source of gratification to me to join it and place my humble service at its disposal.”

In 1936 Ray retired from his service in the University College of Science but he continued as Emeritus Professor of Chemistry till his death.

Ray was a staunch patriot. In many ways he was connected with the movement for India’s independence. Being a Government servant he could not directly participate in politics. He subscribed whole-heartedly to the policy of constructive work formulated by the Indian National Congress during the Non-cooperation Movement. He was in regular contact with the top leaders of the Indian National Congress, which was spearheading the freedom struggle. It was Ray who took initiative to bring Mahatma Gandhi for the first time to Kolkata. Here we quote Ray on his association with Gopal Krishna Gokhale and Mahatma Gandhi. Ray wrote: “Sometimes in 1901 Gopal Kirshna Gokhale came to Calcutta to attend the session of the viceregal council. One fine morning Dr. Nilratan Sarkar called on me and asked me to be at once ready to accompany him to the Howrah station to receive the eminent statesman. Gokhale used now and then to see me in my little retreat at premises No. 91Upper Circular Road in which was also located the office and factory of the Bengal Chemical and Pharmaceutical Works then in its infancy. He took particular delight in calling me a “scientific recluse.”…Gokhale was several years junior to me in age and I naturally in accordance with oriental ideas used to take liberties with him.” Ray’s patriotism reflected in his saying: “Science can wait but Swaraj cannot.”

On his association with Mahatma Gandhi Ray wrote: “I was thus in a manner responsible for Mr. Gandhi’s first appearance on a Calcutta platform…The frequent conversations which I used to have with Mr. Gandhi made a deep and lasting impression on me. He was earning as a barrister several thousand rupees a month but he was utterly regardless of worldliness — ’I always make it a point to travel third class in my railway journeys, so that I might be in close personal touch with the masses—my own countrymen—and get to know their sorrows and sufferings.’ ”Even after the lapse of thirty years, these words still ring in my years. Truth lived is a far greater force than truth merely spoken” Ray published about 120 research papers mostly in research journals of international repute. 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 this process he isolated mercurous nitrite in 1896, which brought him international recognition, as it was a compound, which as not known then. Describing this event Ray wrote in his autobiography : “the discovery of mercurous nitrite opened a new chapter in my life.” The discovery of mercurous nitrite was an accidental one. Ray wanted to prepare water soluble mercurous nitrate as an intermediate for the synthesis of calomel, Hg2C l2. Ray first published his findings in the Journal of Asiatic Society of Bengal and which immediately noticed by Nature, the famous international science journal. This discovery of mercurous nitrite led to many significant publications. Another notable contribution made by Ray was the synthesis of ammonium nitrite in pure form. Before Ray’s synthesis it used to be believed that ammonium nitrite (NH4NO2) undergoes fast thermal decomposition yielding nitrogen (N2) and water (H2O). Ray presented his findings in a meeting of the Chemical Society of London. William Ramsay was greatly impressed by Ray’s findings. Commenting on Ray’s scientific achievements Professor W. E. Armstrong wrote: “In type of Sir Prafulla Ray is perhaps more like a Frenchman than an Englishman in his receptive habit of mind : the nearest comparison I can make is to contrast him with Berthelot, not only a many-sided chemist but also an agronomist, man of letters and politician. Let me say frankly, Ray is not great as a chemical specialist nor was Berthelot: he has been occupied in too many directions, too much kept aloof from the field of chemical discovery and its masters, to have lost himself in the contemplation of the maze of chemical experience to the extent necessary to be entirely overcome by the magic and immunity of its problems. None the less, he is the founder of the Indian chemical school.” Similar sentiments, were voiced by Priyadaranjan Ray: “one must not, however, lose sight of the important fact that 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.”

The first volume of Ray’s celebrated work, The History of Hindu Chemistry, was published in 1902. The second volume was published in 1908. It was Marcellin Pierre Eugene Berthelot (1827-1907), who inspired Ray to undertake this monumental work. In the preface to the first edition Ray wrote:” …I was brought into communication with M. Berthelot some five years ago – a circumstance which has proved to be a turning point, if I may so say, in my career as a student of the history of chemistry. The illustrious French savant, the Doyen of the chemical world, who has done more than any other persons to clear up the sources and trace the progress of chemical science in the West, expressed a strong desire to know all about the contribution of the Hindus, even went the length of making a personal appeal to me to help him with information on the subject. In response to his sacred call I submitted to him, in 1898, a short monograph on Indian alchemy; it was based chiefly on Rasendra Samgraha, a work which I have since then found to be a minor importance and not calculated to throw much light on the vexed question as to the origin of the Hindu Chemistry. M. Berthelot not only did me the honour of reviewing it at length but very kindly presented me with a complete set of his monumental work, in three volumes, on the chemistry of the Middle Ages, dealing chiefly with the Arabian and Syrian contributions on the subject, the very existence of which I was not till then aware of. On perusing the contents of these works I was filled with the ambition of supplementing them with one on Hindu chemistry.” Ray’s Hindu Chemistry was immediately recognized as a unique contribution in annals of history of science. Berthelot himself wrote a 15-page review in Journal des Savant in its issue of January 1903. Renowned international journals like Nature and Knowledge wrote very highly of the book. In 1912 the Vice Chancellor of Durham University, while conferring the Honorary DSc degree on Prafulla Chandra Ray, noted: “…his fame chiefly rests on his monumental History of Hindu Chemistry, a work of which both the scientific and linguistic attainments are equally remarkable, and of which, if on any book, we may pronounce that it is definitive.”

Ray started his Bengal Chemical and Pharmaceutical Works Ltd. (or Bengal Chemical as it is popularly known) in 1892 with a view, that it would create jobs for the unemployed youth. To establish it, he had to work under the most adverse circumstances. But he worked hard. To quote him: “Every afternoon on returning from the college (4:30 pm) I used to go through the previous day’s orders and to see that they were executed promptly. The migration from my college laboratory to the pharmacy laboratory was to me a recreation and a change of occupation. I would at once throw myself into my new `job’ and work at a stretch from 4:30 pm to 7 pm and clear the file. When work is coupled with a keen sense of enjoyment it does not tell upon your health; the very idea of locally manufacturing pharmaceutical preparation, which hitherto had to be imported, acted like a tonic.”

Sir John Cumming in Review of the Industrial Position and Prospects in Bengal in 1908 observed: “The Bengal Chemical & Pharmaceutical Works Ltd., is one of the most go-ahead young enterprises in Bengal. Dr. Prafulla Chandra Ray, D.Sc., FCS., started it as a small private concern in Upper Circular Road about 15 years ago and made drugs from indigenous materials. About six years ago it was made into a limited liability company, with a capital of two lakhs. Many of the leading chemists are share-holders. It has now a well-thought out and well-managed factory with about 70 workmen, at 90 Maniktala Main Road. Babu Rajshekhar Bose, the Manager, is an M.A. in Chemistry. The variety of manufacturers of laboratory apparatus, which requires skilled craftsmen in wood and metal, has been taken up. The latest development is in perfumes. The enterprise shows signs of resourcefulness and business capacity, which should be an object lesson to capitalists of this province.”

Ray had great fascination for rural life and he had a deep concern for the people living in rural areas. He used to frequently visit the houses of poor peasants and took interest in their agricultural pursuits. He wrote: “Although I instinctively avoided the society of those who used to frequent my father’s drawing room, I threw off reserve when in the company of unsophisticated rural folk. I often would visit them in their thatched homes. In those days there were scarcely any grocer’s shops in the village, Sago, arrow-root, and sugar candy which have so largely entered into the dietary of the sick could not be had for love or money and I always took particular pleasure in distributing these and laying my mother’s stores under heavy contribution, but she gladly used to second me in my ministration.” Ray is remembered for his part in the Bengal famine of 1922. A correspondent for Mancnester Guardian wrote: “In these circumstances, a professor of chemistry, Sir P. C. Ray, stepped forward and called upon his countrymen to make good the Government’s omission. His call was answered with enthusiasm. The public of Bengal, in one month gave three lakhs of rupees, rich women giving their silk and ornaments and the poor giving their garments. Hundreds of young men volunteered to go down and carry out the distribution of relief to the villages, a task which involved a considerable amount of hard work and bodily discomfort in a malarious country. The enthusiasms of the response to Shri P. C. Ray’s appeal was due partly to the Bengal’s natural desire to scare off the foreign Government, partly to genuine sympathy for the sufferers, but very largely to Sir P. C. Ray’s remarkable personality and position. He is a real organiser and a real teacher. I heard a European saying: `If Mr. Gandhi had been able to create two more Sir P. C. Ray, he would have succeeded in getting Swaraj within this year.”

Ray wrote extensively on a variety of subjects both in English and Bengali. He wrote a book on Zoology titled Simple Zoology in 1893. For writing this book he not only studied many authoritative books on zoology but also visited museums and zoos. It has been reported that he even went to the extent of dissecting a few carcasses with the help of Nilratan Sarkar, the famous physician. Ray wrote a series of scholarly articles on Shakespeare in Calcutta Review during 1939-41. Ray frequently contributed article in many Bengali periodicals like Basumati, Bharatbarsha, Bangabani, Banglarbani, Prabashi, Anandabazar Patrika, Manashi etc.

Ray gave away most of his earnings in charity. According to one estimate Ray spent nine-tenths of his income on charity. In 1922 he made an endowment of Rs.10,000 for an annual prize in chemistry, named after the great Indian alchemist Nagarjuna. He also made an endowment of Rs.10,000 in 1936 for a research prize in zoology and botany named after Asutosh Mookerjee. He supported many poor students. At the time of his retirement Ray donated Rs.180,000 to the Calcutta University for the extension and development of the Chemistry Department. He did not accept any salary from Bengal Chemicals, which he donated for the welfare of the workers. Ray died on June 16, 1942 in his living room in the University College of Science of the Calcutta University surrounded by his students (whom he loved most), friends and admirers. Ray’s philosophy of life was beautifully summed up by Professor F. G. Donnan of the University College of Science, London on the occasion of Ray’s 70th birthday. Donnan wrote: “Sir P. C. Ray, however, has been throughout his life no narrow laboratory specialist…His ideals have always been hard work and practical good in service of his country. Though devoted to the cause of pure science, he has never been unpractical dreamer in the clouds. But he has never asked much for himself, living always a life of Spartan simplicity and frugality—Saint Francis of Indian Science. I hope that future ages will cherish his name as one band of self-denying and devoted men who received and handed on the flame that once burnt so brightly in India, the search for truth and hidden mysteries of things.”

We would like to end this article by quoting Ray : “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.”

For Further Reading

1. Life and Experiences of a Bengali Chemist (Vol. 1 & 2) by P. C. Ray, The Asiatic Society, Kolkata, 1996 (first published in 1932)
2. Prafulla Chandra Ray by P. Ray in Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the National Institute of Sciences of India (Vol.1), New Delhi, 1966.
3. P. C. Ray by J Sen Gupta, National Book Trust, India, New Delhi, 1972.
4. A History of Hindu Chemistry (Vol. 1 & 2) by P. C. Ray, Kolkata (The first volume was published in 1902 and the second volume in 1909. A new revised edition was published by Priyadaranjan Ray in 1956)
5. Acharya Ray 70th Birthday Commemoration Volume, Calcutta Orient Press, Kolkata, 1932.
6. Acharya Prafulla Chnadra Ray : Birth Centenary Souvenir volume, Calcutta University, 1962.
7. Acharya Prafulla Chandra at the College of Science, by Gurunath Mukherjee, Resonance, January 2001.
8. Chemical Research of Sir Prafulla Chandra Ray by Sreebrata Goswami and Samaresh Bhattacharya, Resonance, January 2001.
9. Prafulla Chandra Ray by Animesh Chakravorty, Resonance, January 2001.

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