Prafulla Chandra was born on 2nd August 1861 in Raruli-Katipara, a village in the District of Khulna (now in Bangla Desh). His father – Harish Chandra Ray – a landlord with liberal views, belonged to a wealthy cultured family.
Interruptions in Education
Prafulla Chandra’s early education started in his father’s village school. But he often stayed away from school. His teacher, while making a search for the truant in almost every house in the village, would find the culprit resting comfortably on the branch of a tree, hidden under its leaves!
In 1870 Harish Chandra moved his family to Calcutta so that his sons could have higher education. Here, Prafulla Chandra was admitted to the Hare School. He took a great interest in books and read a vast number of them. But a severe attack of dysentery forced him to leave the school. The disease was slowly overcome, but it permanently injured his health; he became a life-long sufferer from chronic indigestion and sleeplessness. In his later days he sometimes thought of this as a blessing in disguise. For the rest of his life he was very strict about his food; and he had regular exercises.
Prafulla was now free from the tyranny of the dreary school routine; so he found time to satisfy his passion for the study of English and Bengali literatures. When barely ten years old, he learnt Latin and Greek (Languages of ancient Europe). He also studied the histories of Ehgland, Rome and Spain.
Two years later, Prafulla chandra resumed his studies and in 1874 joined the Albert School. He liked the attitude of the teachers of this school and their method of teaching. The teachers in their turn were very much impressed by his knowledge of English literature and other subjects. They were hopeful of his brilliant success in the
examinations. But Prafulla Chandra suddenly left for his village, without sitting for the examinations. He still had a secret desire to return to the Hare School. But if he sat for the examinations. He was sure to win prizes. Then it would be unfair to leave the Albert School. So he left that school before the examinations.
Prafulla Chandra, however, returned to Calcutta in 1876 and resumed his studies at the Albert School. His affectionate teachers made him agree not to leave the school to go back to the Hare School. This time Prafulla Chandra worked hard and got the first place in the examinations. He won a number of prizes. In 1879 he passed the Entrance Examination and joined the Metropolitan Institute (now called Vidyasagar College).
Harish Chandra’s financial position was bad. It grew worse and worse. He was forced to sell the ancestral property, to pay his creditors. To save money, he shifted his family back to Raruli. The sons lived in rooms in Calcutta
The Gilchrist Prize
While pursuing his studies in the Metropolitan Institute, Prafulla Chandra used to attend lectures by Alexander Pedlar on Chemistry, in the Presidency College. Pedlar was an inspiring teacher and a skilful experimentalist. His lectures influenced Prafulla Chandra to take up Chemistry for his higher studies in B.A.
The London University used to conduct competitive examinations in those days for the ‘Gilchrist Prize Scholarship’. The successful candidate could go abroad for higher studies.
What a chance-if only he could get the scholarship!
Prafulla Chandra started preparing for the examination secretly. He was born in a very rich family, but now all the wealth had disappeared. This was only chance to go abroad. His knowledge of languages was very helpful in this, since one of the requirements was knowledge of Greek, Latin, Sanskrit and French or German. But he had to compete with thousands of others.
Only his brother and a cousin knew about this at first. By and by the secret was leaked out by a classmate, who stood high in the University examinations, He taunted Prafulla Chandra saying “Oh, this very intelligent man’s name will soon appear in the special edition of the London University Calendar!”
A few months after the examinations the results were published in the ‘Stateman’.Prafulla Chandra and a Parsee of Bombay by name Bahadurji had won the scholarship. The Principal was overjoyed and showered praises on Prafulla Chandra.
Prafulla Chandra now decided to go abroad. His father readily gave his consent, but Prafulla Chandra was worried about his mother’s feelings.. He consoled his mother saying, “When I return from England, I will get a high position. My first duty will be to repay the debts and to repair our ancestral home.”
In 1882 Prafulla Chandra left for Britain. The long journey on the seas was quite tiresome. Because of seasickness he could not eat enough food and felt very weak.
After a voyage, which lasted thirty-three days, he reached London. The Indian students there helped him in several ways. They equipped him with sufficient woolen clothes to endure the bitter cold of Edinburgh, to which place he had to go.
Edinburgh was four hundred miles from London. Prafulla Chandra joined the B.Sc. Class in the University there. He was very much influenced by the Professor of Chemistry, Mr. Crum Brown, at the University. Chemistry became his first love.
Prafulla Chandra took the B.Sc. degree in 1885. After this he did research in Chemistry for the D.Sc. degree of the University. In 1887 he was awarded this degree on the basis of a thesis on the results of his original work. He was only 27 years old at the time
The Professor – Scientist
In 1888 Prafulla Chandra returned to India. He had obtained letters of introduction from his Principal and Professors. It was his hope that with their aid he would be able to get a good position in the education department. But in those days all the high places in this department were reserved for Englishmen. Though Prafulla Chandra had a Doctorate in Science, it became difficult for him to receive recognition in his own country. For about a year he spent his time working with his famous friend Jagadish Chandra Bose in his laboratory.
In 1889 Prafulla Chandra was appointed as Assistant Professor of 4 Chemistry in the Presidency College at Calcutta. His salary was only Rs.250 a month. But he was quite satisfied with his work. He started teaching very enthusiastically. He soon earned a great reputation as a successful and inspiring teacher.
Prafulla Chandra was never tired of saying that the progress of India could be achieved only by industrialization.
He advocated the use of the mother – tongue as the medium of instruction in schools. For this, he began to write science texts-books in Bengali.
Why Should Our Patients Depend On Other Countries?
Eighty-five years ago Prafulla Chandra came to realize that the progress of India was linked with industrialization. Without this there could be no salvation. Even drugs for Indian patients had to come from foreign countries at that time. This put money into the pockets of the merchants of those countries. This had to be stopped. Drugs had to be manufactured in India. Prafulla Chandra wanted a beginning to be made at once. But who was to do it?
Prafulla Chandra was not rich. The family estates had been sold to pay his father’s debts. Prafulla Chandra’s salary was also meager. Still he ventured upon this pioneering attempt. He prepared some chemicals at home. His work grew so fast that a separate company had to be formed.
But he needed capital – a capital of only eight hundred rupees. But it became difficult to raise even this small amount.
In spite of all these difficulties he founded ‘The Bengal Chemical and Pharmaceutical Works’. In 1894 his father died. This was a great blow to Prafulla Chandra. The father was still in debts and thousands of rupees were needed. Only a small part of the property remained. Even this was sold, so that the debts could be repaid.
Prafulla Chandra bravely continued to run the new factory. At first it was difficult to sell the chemicals made there. They could not compete with the imported materials. But some friends, chiefly Dr. Amulya Charan Bose, supported his venture. Dr. Bose was a leading medical practitioner and he enlisted the support of many other doctors. Bengal Chemical became a famous factory. But Dr. Bose died suddenly in 1898 owing to an attack of Plague. His brother-in-law Satish Chandra Sinha, who was an enthusiastic chemist in the firm, died of accidental poisoning in the- laboratory. Thus one blow followed another and Prafulla Chandra was very unhappy. The entire responsibility of the factory fell on his shoulders. Still he faced everything with courage.
This achievement itself was admirable, but. Prafulla Chandra’s contribution to Indian industry was even greater. Directly or indirectly he helped to start many other factories. Textile mills, soap factories, sugar factories, chemical industries, ceramic factories and publishing houses were set up at the time with his active co-operation. He was the driving force behind the industrialization of the country, which began at that time.
Scientist – Author
During all these years, he was also actively engaged in research in his laboratory at Presidency College. His publications on Mercurous Nitrite and its derivatives brought him recognition from all over the world. He guided many students in their research in his laboratory. Even famous scientific journals abroad began to publish their scientific papers..
A ‘Doctor of Floods’
In 1901 Prafulla Chandra met Mahatma Gandhi for the first time in the house of a mutual friend, Gopala Krishna Gokhale. Gandhiji had just then returned from South Africa. Prafulla Chandra developed great reverence for Gandhiji at this very first meeting. Gandhiji’s simplicity, patriotism and devotion to duty appealed to him very much. He learnt that it was easy to talk about truth but that it is far nobler to practice it in one’s life. Gandhiji also had great regard for Prafulla Chandra. He knew how hard he worked to help the poor and the needy. When floods caused great suffering and destruction, Prafulla Chandra worked very hard to bring relief to the victims. This made Gandhiji call him a ‘Doctor of Floods’!
For The Sake Of Science
Prafulla Chandra said on one occasion that when the people of Europe did not know how to make clothes, and were still wearing animal skins and wandering in forests, Indian scientists were manufacturing wonderful chemicals. This is something we should be proud of.
But Prafulla Chandra also knew that it is not enough to be proud of our past. We should follow the example of our ancestors and seek knowledge and progress in science.
Prafulla Chandra did not rest content with giving such advice. He worked hard to practice it. In 1916 he retired from the Presidency College. Sir Asuthosh Mukherjee, the vice-chancellor of Calcutta University, appointed him as professor of Chemistry at the University Science College. Here Prafulla Chandra trained many talented students and with them made famous discoveries.
Prafulla Chandra worked in this college for twenty years. He remained a bachelor all his life. All these twenty years he lived in a simple room on the first floor of the college. Some of his students who were poor and could not live anywhere else shared his room. In 1936, when he was 75 years old, he retired from the Professorship.
In 1921 when Prafulla Chandra reached 60 years he donated, in advance, all his salary for the rest of his service in the University to the development of the Department of Chemistry and to the creation of two research fellowships. The value of this endowment was about two lake rupees
In recognition of Prafulla Chandra’s great work he was elected President of Indian Science Congress and Indian Chemical Society more than once. Many Indian and Western Universities conferred honorary doctorates on him.