A great Chemist and Scientist-cum-Entrepreneur Acharya Prafulla Chandra Ray was attracted towards the study of science due to the practical demonstrations conducted in the class by his Chemistry teacher. During his study of BA (B Course) he sat for the Gilchrist Scholarship examination and got qualified for the same. So before completing the BA in 1882 he got admitted to Edinburg University to study BSc. On reaching England he was received by JC Basu.
The period of his scientific research can be divided into four segments. First, research in Edinburg University (1882-1888), second, teaching and research in Presidency College (1889-1916), third, research in University College of Science (Science College) (1916-1925), and fourth, last phase (1925-1936). Attaining 75 years of age in 1936, he relinquished the position at Science College and devoted himself entirely to societal and other activities.
In his research life comprising four segments, he published 363 articles; among these more than 100 were research papers. His versatile scientific stream flowed mainly in four tributaries, fundamental research, ancient India’s scientific developmental history, Indianisation of science with industry, and development of chemical industry.
He is to be remembered particularly for his struggle to establish himself as father of Indian School of Chemistry, which he nurtured with his humble ordinary middle class background. In his childhood, he came in contact with many renowned personalities of that time. His fundamental research in Chemistry under Prof. Alexander Crum Brown at Edinburgh University fetched him international fame in Chemical fraternity, and subsequently D.Sc degree in the year 1887 in Inorganic Chemistry. During the study he observed that there was some
information gap in the developmental history of Chemistry with special reference to Bharateeya Chemistry and
His discovery of Mercurous Nitrite was a decisive turning point. Experience of this discovery made him famous in Europe, as they failed to prepare this pure compound even during past eleven years. His research on natural products gained momentum in the later period. With this discovery, Ray was able to demonstrate that given facilities, it was possible for Bharateeyas to perform good experimental work. He managed to combine three different streams—devotion to Industrial Chemistry, researches in Pure Chemistry and in-depth studies on Ayurvedic treatise. All those streams demand full-time attention. After returning to Bharat in Dhoti and Kurta, he started standardisation of oil and ghee to analyse their purity.
While studying Ayurveda, he observed that in Charaka Samhita, first chapter of Chikitsa Sthana was named as Rasayana, towards therapeutic management on prevention of diseases and to some extent on the aging process. In Bharateeya perspectives rasayan term is being used as rasa ‘the nutrients and ayana’ means transportation. The Bharateeya alchemical preparations were also being used in continuity
as rasayan to boost up human
In his efforts to uphold the position of the country in the field of Science, he was of the opinion that a nation cannot occupy a place of pride in the science arena unless it had something substantial to contribute. He had command over Sanskrit, Latin, and French and German languages. While he was engaged in compiling ‘A History of Hindu Chemistry’, in teaching during his lecture he would often refer to the chemical knowledge of Hindus and often quote Nagarjuna in support.
He observed that the alchemical developments occurred in ancient Bharat bear an antiquity since the Harappa and Mohenjo-daro civilisation, but those contributions did not find mention in the world literature. One may speculate that his initiative on mercury research may have percolated from the Ayurveda Alchemy, the Makaradhawaja preparation.
Along with ancient Western traditions, he undertook a systematic examination, from the chemical stand point of the Charaka, the Sushruta and the various standard works of the Ayurvedic periods. It was at this stage that he was brought into communication with MPE Berthelot some five years ago, a circumstance which proved to be a turning point in his career as a student of the history of Chemistry. (Preface to Vol. I, A History of Hindu Chemistry, 1902).
Ray considered that publication of
A History of Hindu Chemistry, a lifetime achievement and to pay back his debt to his mother land as a chemist, to uphold the glorious past, the achievements of Ayurvedic saints. While writing the book, he took great care and divided it in to six chapters, the constitution and properties of matter of the Atomic theory of Bharateeya philosophy to link with modern science. Second on the Chemistry of Ayurveda Period Charaka, Sushruta, the transitional period, the Tantric Period, Latro-Chemical Period, Metals and Metallurgy. The second volume also contains six chapters: Alchemy of Nagarjuna and Buddhist period, Modern period, indigenous Indian Alchemy, remaining portion of Tantric Period, and contribution of Bharateeya alchemists.
He described in detail the processing of raw materials, bhasma preparation of different metals, minerals, gems used in Ayurveda. Alchemical preparation like Makaradhawaja drew his attraction. Mercury and sulphur
amalgamation with definite proportion, how it was determined, was a matter of scientific speculations to him.
The Laws of Definite Proportion was unknown to the ancients, tedious processes were resorted to for the complete conversion of mercury into sulphide, Makaradhawaja, even in the present day is widely used by the Ayurvedic physicians. He gave the reference of Rasendra Churamani that when mercury is killed by double the weight of sulphur, it becomes double efficacious. He further mentioned that a time will come when even after repeated firing no change of weight will occur. Although, in western countries the loss of weight was explained on the basis of their impurities.
Recent studies reveals that Makaradhawaja does not contain any gold (Nuclear Emission Study, ASS), similar statement was made by Acharya Ray. After HPLC and HPTLC studies with Makaradhawaja a unique new molecule was discovered containing protein, natural product and elemental complex.
The Second volume of The History of Hindu Chemistry was dedicated to M Berthelot. In the statement Acharya said, ‘He is no more in this world to felicitate me as he expired in 1907.’ Flame test to identify the metals in ancient Bharat was prevailing. In Chemistry laboratory teaching, this method is followed till date.
Pratip K Debnath (The writer is a consultant at National Research Institute of Ayurvedic Drug Development, Kolkata. With inputs from Dulal C Mukherjee, Prof of Chemistry (Retd.), University of Calcutta)