Was this Indian Genius the ‘Father of Chemistry’?

DESIblitz delves into an Indian intellectual who was popularly known as the ‘father of chemistry’. We detail his life and career.

Was this Indian Genius the 'Father of Chemistry'_ - F

"There is no delight like that which springs from a discovery."

When it comes to science in India, the ‘father of chemistry’ is a prestigious title.

However, who was known as this?

His name is Prafulla Chandra Ray. He was an Indian chemist, educationist, historian and philanthropist.

Prafulla’s fields of study included inorganic and organic chemistry and the history of chemistry.

An intellectual and a proven genius, Prafulla’s life is a saga of achievements.

We invite you on a journey that will take you through the life of this great man.

DESIblitz dives into the story of the Indian ‘father of chemistry’.

Early Education

Was this Indian Genius the 'Father of Chemistry'_ - Early EducationPrafulla Chandra Ray was born in Raruli-Katipara, which is now in Bangladesh, on August 2, 1861.

He was the third child of Harish Chandra Raychowhury and Bhubanmohini Devi.

In 1878, Prafulla passed his matriculation examinations with a First Division.

Subsequently, he was admitted to the Metropolitan Institution, which later became known as Vidyasagar College.

While studying, Prafulla was deeply influenced by Surendranath Banerjee, who was the English Literature teacher at the college.

During this period, Prafulla participated in several lectures in physics and chemistry, with a notable interest in the latter.

His passion for the subject led him to set up a miniature chemistry lab at a classmate’s lodgings.

He also learned Latin and French and became well-versed in Sanskrit, which helped win him a Gilchrist Prize Scholarship.

After a rigorous examination, Prafulla was enrolled as a Bachelor of Science student at the University of Edinburgh. In the 1880s, he studied in the UK for six years.

In 1951, Prafulla’s former classmate, the geographer Hugh Robert Mill remembered the father of chemistry and said:

“[He is] the most enlightened Hindu I ever met, speaking and writing English with grace and fluency, and singularly at home in European modes of thought.”

In 1886, Prafulla wrote an award-winning essay in which he condemned the British Raj.

All these factors indicated what an inspiring figure he would become in later years.

Scientific Career

Was this Indian Genius the 'Father of Chemistry'_ - Scientific CareerNitrites

In 1895, Prafulla Chandra Ray began his work in discovering nitrite chemistry.

The following year, he published a paper exploring a new chemical compound known as mercurous nitrite.

This is an inorganic compound – a salt made up of mercury and nitric acid.

His work carved the path for several more investigations into nitrites.

Prafulla admitted: “The discovery of mercurous nitrite opened a new chapter in my life.”

He is also the first person to synthesise mercury and he advocated for mercury to be used to treat skin diseases.

The ‘father of chemistry’ also proved that pure ammonium nitrite was a stable displacement in the field.

Ammonium nitrate is a white crystalline salt consisting of ammonium and nitrate.

It can be used in agriculture as a high-nitrogen fertiliser and is highly soluble in water.

For this achievement, he was congratulated by the Nobel laureate William Ramsay.

In 1924, Prafulla began a new Indian School of Chemistry. His work in nitrites also earned him the title of ‘Master of Nitrites’.

British chemist Henry Edward Armstrong told Prafulla:

“The way in which you have gradually made yourself ‘master of nitrites’ is very interesting.

“And the fact that you have established that as a class they are far from being the unstable bodies, chemists had supposed, is an important addition to our knowledge.”

Pharmaceutical Company

In 1901, he established India’s very first government-owned pharmaceutical company.

Known as Bengal Chemicals and Pharmaceuticals, the company opened its first factory in Kolkata in 1905.

Three more followed in Panihati, Mumbai, and Kanpur in 1920, 1938, and 1949 respectively.

In 1916, he joined the Calcutta University College of Science as its first ‘Palit Professor of Chemistry’.

While in this position, he became known for his work on compounds including gold, platinum and iridium.

In 1921, Prafulla donated his salary to Calcutta University, as an aid for chemical research, thus proving his passion for the advancement of the field.

Literary

Was this Indian Genius the 'Father of Chemistry'_ - LiteraryPrafulla Chandra Ray might have been known as the ‘father of chemistry’.

However, his interest and impact stretch beyond the magnetic field of science.

Prafulla wrote Bengali articles for magazines, embracing his scientific fascinations in this work.

In 1932, he published the first volume of his autobiography, which is named Life and Experience of a Bengali Chemist. 

Prafulla dedicated it to India’s youth and the second volume was released in 1935.

He stated: “This volume is affectionately inscribed in the hope that its perusal may in some measure stimulate them to activities.”

In 1902, he channelled his extensive research into ancient Sanskrit manuscripts and the work of orientalists into A History of Hindu Chemistry from the Earliest Times to the Middle of the Sixteenth Century.

The second volume of this text was issued in 1909.

Delving into this work, Prafulla said:

“It was a source of gratification to me that almost immediately on the appearance of the first volume, it was welcomed with high encomiums both at home and abroad.

“The preparation of the first volume of the History of Hindu Chemistry entitled such hard and continuous labour that it did not leave me much time to pursue my studies in modern chemistry, which had been advancing by leaps and bounds and making gigantic strides.”

Prafulla’s dedication to getting his thoughts down on paper as a means to inspire generations illustrates his zeal for knowledge and learning.

For that, he should be applauded and respected.

Philanthropy

Was this Indian Genius the 'Father of Chemistry'_ - PhilanthropyPrafulla Chandra Ray was known for his generous philanthropy and humanitarian causes.

He donated money regularly to a variety of organisations.

These include the welfare of Sadharan Brahmo Samaj, Brahmo Girls’ School and the Indian Chemical Society.

It was due to his donation in 1922 that the Nagarjuna Prize was established.

The accolade was for the best work in chemistry.

In 1937, another award, named after the Bengali mathematician Ashutosh Mukherjee, came from Prafulla’s donation.

This award was for achievements in zoology or botany.

Prafulla was the recipient of several honours. He was awarded a Companion of the Order of the Indian Empire (CIE) in 1912.

In 1919, he was given a Knight Bachelor.

In his career, Prafulla was awarded the following doctorates:

  • Honorary Doctor of Philosophy degree from the University of Calcutta.
  • Honorary D.Sc. degree from Durham University.
  • Honorary D.Sc. degree from Banaras Hindu University.
  • Honorary D.Sc. degree from the University of Dhaka.
  • Honorary D.Sc. degree from the University of Allahabad.

Prafulla Chandra Ray is undeniably deserving of such recognition.

A Legend Lives On

Was this Indian Genius the 'Father of Chemistry'_ - A Legend Lives OnPrafulla Chandra Ray passed away on June 16, 1944, at the age of 82.

Writing about him on ChemistryWorld, Dinsa Sachan quotes the German historian Benjamin Zachariah.

The historian reflected: “He had a very keen sense of his own public duty.

“He felt he had a relatively privileged life.

“And that, therefore, he had to do to give back something to education, to the less privileged and to an abstraction called the country.”

Dinsa also quoted the historian Dhruv Raina at the Jawaharlal Nehru University:

“He initiated a process of the institutionalisation of chemistry research [in India].”

The article also highlighted that if Prafulla had lived for three more years, he would have been able to see India as an independent country.

Talking about the delight that a discovery can bring, Prafulla expressed:

“There is no delight like that which springs from a discovery.

“It is a joy that gladdens the heart.”

Prafulla Chandra Ray is a renowned figure in the field of Indian chemistry and education.

His research and subsequent findings have pioneered scientific advancements in India.

Prafulla’s discoveries, innovation, and passion for his field are indeed inspiring and historic.

He was also passionate about propelling change within the younger generations of his time.

As Indian students and learners move towards the sciences, the legacy of Prafulla Chandra Ray will be preserved and honoured.



Manav is a creative writing graduate and a die-hard optimist. His passions include reading, writing and helping others. His motto is: “Never hang on to your sorrows. Always be positive."

Images courtesy of Instagram, X, Breakthrough Science Society, The Heritage Lab and Telegraph India.





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