Acharya Prafulla Chandra Ray was an eminent chemist, academician, entrepreneur, and the father of chemistry in modern India.
Birth and Early Life: Prafulla Chandra Ray was born on 2 August 1861 in a village in the district of Jessore (subsequently of Khulna), now in Bangladesh. His father Harish Chandra Ray was a nobleman in the locality. Prafulla Chandra studied in a school in his village up to the age of 9. In 1870, his father migrated to Calcutta and Prafulla Chandra was admitted to Hare School. In 1874, he suffered from a severe attack of dysentery which hampered his health throughout his life. Due to the severity of the attack, he had to postpone his studies for a couple of years and return to his ancestral home in the village.
Higher Education: After recovering from illness he returned to Calcutta and took admission in Albert School. From there he passed the Entrance Examination in 1879 and took admission in the Metropolitan Institution (now Vidyasagar College). As there was no science laboratory in that college at that time, he attended lectures and laboratories on Physics and Chemistry in the Presidency College as an external student. Here he was especially attracted by the chemistry courses of professor Alexander Pedler. In 1882, he was awarded the Gilchrist Prize Scholarship after an all-India competitive examination. And for that, without completing the course for his degree in India, he proceeded to Britain and enrolled in the B. Sc course of Edinburgh University where he studied Physics, Chemistry and Biology. After obtaining his B. Sc. degree from Edinburgh University, Ray embarked on his doctoral thesis (DSc) in the same university and completed it in 1887. He was also awarded the Hope Prize which allowed him to work on his research for a further period of one year after completion of his doctorate.
Career: Prafulla Chandra returned to India in the first week of August 1888 and subsequently joined Presidency College, Calcutta, as an assistant professor of Chemistry in 1889. In 1896, he published a paper on preparation of a new chemical compound — Mercurous nitrite. This research work made way to a large number of investigative papers on nitrites and hyponitrites. He had written 107 papers in all branches of Chemistry by 1920. Ray started his Bengal Chemical and Pharmaceutical Works Ltd in 1892 with a view to create jobs for the unemployed youth and encourage their skill in scientific works.
Personal Life: Prafulla Chandra retired from the Presidency College in 1916 and joined the Calcutta University College of Science as its first Palit Professor of Chemistry at the request of Sir Asutosh Mukherjee. In 1936, at the age of 75, he retired from active service and became Professor Emeritus. Long before that, on the completion of his 60th year in 1921, he gifted his entire salary to the Calcutta University for the furtherance of chemical research and the development of Chemistry in the University College of Science. In 1922, he donated money to establish Nagarjuna Prize to be awarded for the best work in Chemistry at Calcutta University. He started a new Indian School of Chemistry in 1924. In 1937 he donated money for another award named after Asutosh Mukherjee for the best work in Zoology or Botany in the Calcutta University.
Social Service: In personal life, he was a bachelor and a staunch patriot. In many ways, he was connected with the movement for India’s independence. He was a dedicated figure in social service too. In 1923, when Northern Bengal suffered a flood making millions of people hungry and homeless, Prafulla Chandra organised Bengal Relief Committee which collected nearly 2.5 million rupees in cash and kind and distributed it in the affected area. He supported many poor students to continue their studies to stand on their own footing In life.
Literary Works and Recognition: In 1902, he published the first volume of ‘A History of Hindu Chemistry from the Earliest Times to the Middle of Sixteenth Century’. The second volume was published in 1908. The work was the result of many years’ research through ancient Sanskrit manuscripts and through works of Orientalists. He published the first volume of his autobiography Life and Experience of a Bengali Chemist in 1932 and dedicated it to the youth of India. The second volume of this work was issued in 1935. 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 form early decades of the twentieth century. In the preface, he wrote, “… 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.”
Death: Prafulla Chandra Ray died on 16 June 1944 in his living room in the University College of Science, Calcutta, surrounded by his students, friends and admirers. Prof. F G Donnan of the University College of Science, London, on the occasion of Ray’s 70th birthday wrote: “Sir Prafulla Chandra Ray 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.”