In a world engulfed by the COVID-19 pandemic, when the leaders of several countries have called for national self-sufficiency, I am prodded to reflect upon the immortal philosophy and works of my paternal Great Great Grand Uncle, Acharya Sir Prafulla Chandra Ray [P.C Ray]. Anointed the father of chemistry in India, Prafulla Chandra Ray was a strong advocate of making India industrially self-sufficient – a cause to which he dedicated his entire life.
The Making of the Acharya
P.C Ray was born on August 02, 1864 to a Zamindari family, in the village of Raruli-Kathpara, in the then Jessore district, which was a part of the Bengal Presidency of British India (current day Bangladesh). His family was a part of the affluent landed aristocracy and were the erstwhile Dewans of the Krishnanagar and Jessore Districts of the Bengal Presidency under the British East India Company.
Being born to educated and culturally refined parents (Harish Chandra and Bhubonmohini Devi), Prafulla Chandra Ray was encouraged into a life of learning and self-development. After an initial education at Raruli and Calcutta (in the later years), the Acharya wonthe Gilchrist scholarship offered by the University of Edinburgh and went on to pursue further education in Britain. After completing his B.Sc. and subsequently D.Sc. degree from the University of Edinburgh, Prafulla Chandra Ray was awarded the ‘Hope Prize’ for the thesis he had submitted for his D.Sc. degree which enabled him to continue his research for another year1.
P.C Ray : Teacher, Scientist and Entrepreneur
After his return from England, the Acharya pursued his calling as a teacher, and researcher while spreading knowledge about chemistry in India. His utmost pursuit was to develop and encourage a scientific bent of mind in his students, which would free them from the prejudices that commonly infested the minds of Indians at the time. He encouraged the youth to have a free and rational thought process.
The Acharya was an immensely gifted scholar; he discovered several ground-breaking chemical compounds (eg: mercurous nitrite), published more than hundred and fifty research papers in famous science journals (eg: Journal of the Chemical Society of London); authoring many books on chemical sciences (eg: Life and Experience of a Bengali Chemist).
Amidst his other scholarly work, he also documented the history of Chemistry in India (ancient to medieval times).
His work was fuelled and guided by an inherently nationalistic spirit. He realized that for India to break the shackles of the overbearing colonial rule, the country needed to build a strong and independent scientific research base – something that was sorely lacking. This research base would then be the foundation on which the country could augment industrialization and thus ensure self-dependence and self-sustenance.
In Europe, industry and scientiﬁc pursuits have gone hand in hand · · · one helping the other · · ·the gigantic progress in industry achieved in Europe and America is a history of the triumph of researches in the laboratory. These thoughts were weighing heavy on me at the very threshold ofP. C Ray
my career at Presidency College. How to utilize the thousand and one raw products which Nature in her bounty has scattered in Bengal? How to bring bread to the mouths of the ill-fed…
It is important to understand the economical and political backdrop of the country which catalysed and triggered his above stated thoughts. The markets of India at that time were infested with goods which were manufactured in Britain using raw materials which had been supplied from India. These raw materials were sourced at a very cheap rate and the manufactured / finished goods which reached the markets of the country were heavily overpriced! This systematic drainage of wealth from India had seeded a bitter resentment and dissatisfaction amongst the larger Indian crowd fuelling movements favouring swadeshi goods and the boycott of British goods.
P.C Ray : Founder of Bengal Chemical & Pharmaceutical Works
The Acharya, fuelled by the same sentiment took a step to facilitate the industrialisation of India and create jobs by founding the Bengal Chemical & Pharmaceutical Works, in 1901. The Bengal Chemical & Pharmaceutical Works was a success and with the help of several other scientists and nationalistic leaders it grew in size and multiple factories were established in different parts of Bengal and India.
If any one of you have used common household sanitisation products such as phenyl or naphthalene balls, you have been touched upon by the legacy of the Acharya!
Though multiple accolades were showered on him throughout his life (the most noteworthy being Companion of the Order of the Indian Empire in 1912 and the title of Knight Bachelor in 1919), he led a very simple and almost frugal life which he dedicated to the service of his Motherland!
Ray spent the last few years of his life in a laboratory room converted to a small apartment within the University College of Science at Calcutta University. This apartment now houses the P. C. Ray Museum. PC Ray imagined a nation’s growth to be the result of industrial, social, scientific and educational reform and he wholeheartedly contributed towards these. The moniker ‘Acharya’ is thus, apt for him – he who leads by example.