The field of science and technology had been an overtly male-dominated area since time immemorial. In the 20th century India, women were hardly ever allowed to pursue a career in science. Even fewer were given the due credit they deserved for their achievements. Asima Chatterjee was one such woman. A successful organic chemist of her time, she was the first woman to be awarded a D.Sc. Degree (Doctorate of Science) from an Indian university.

Early Life, Education and Career

Born in 1917 Bengal, Asima Chatterjee (née Mukherjee) was the eldest of the two children of a medical doctor Indra Narayan Mukherjee and his wife, Kamala Devi. She grew up in Calcutta and her family was quite encouraging of her interest in academia. Deciding to pursue chemistry, she graduated with honours in the subject from Scottish Church College, University of Calcutta. She then went on to obtain M.Sc. (Master in Science) and D.Sc. from the same university.

During her doctoral degree, she worked under the guidance of PK Bose, the pioneer natural product chemist in India. Among her other notable instructors were Acharya Prafulla Chandra Roy, the eminent Bengali chemist who is better known as the father of chemical science in India, and Prof. Satyendra Nath Bose, the world-renowned physicist now known for his works in quantum mechanics.  Much of her research interest was fostered under their supervision.

Nominated as a Member of the Rajya Sabha by the President of India, Chatterjee served the position till May 1990.

In 1940, Chatterjee joined Lady Brabourne College in Calcutta as the Founder-Head of the Chemistry Department. She was later appointed as an Honorary Lecturer in Chemistry at Calcutta University. During her time in the US and Europe, she collaborated with many famous scientists in the field of chemistry.

On her return to India in 1950s, she gave herself to studying the chemistry of Indian medicinal herbs. She successfully developed anti-epileptic and anti-malarial drugs, both of which were profusely marketed by several companies over the years. Another outstanding contribution to the world of chemistry was her work on vinca alkaloids which belong to Madagascar periwinkle plants. They are used in chemotherapy to help slow down the cancer cells from multiplying.

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A Lady of Many Firsts

Not only was Chatterjee the first woman to receive a D.Sc. Degree from an Indian university, she also became the first woman scientist to chair any University in India. This chair refers to the position of the Khaira Professor of Chemistry, which was, still is, one of the most prestigious and coveted Chairs of the Calcutta University. Chatterjee adorned this position till 1982.

She was given the Padma Bhushan by the Government of India in 1975.

In 1975, Chatterjee became the first woman scientist to be elected as the General President of the Indian Science Congress Association. In the same year, she was honoured by the Bengal Chamber of Commerce as the Woman of the Year for her contributions in science. Earlier, she was also elected a Fellow of the Indian National Science Academy (INSA), New Delhi. She received the CV Raman Award and the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Award, two of the highest medallions of scientific achievement in the country. Additionally, she was also conferred the Padma Bhushan in 1975. Nominated as a Member of the Rajya Sabha by the President of India, Chatterjee served the position till May 1990.

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There’s no doubt that Asima Chatterjee made significant contributions to the field of medicinal chemistry. She published around 400 papers in national and international journals during her lifetime. She also became the Chief-Editor of the six-volume series, The Treatise of Indian Medicinal Plants published by CSIR, a feat rarely achieved by women during those times. Sadly, we hardly ever read her name in history textbooks. She was never celebrated like her male counterparts were. But she inspired a lot of people in her wake. One of her earliest PhD students, S.C. Pakrashi, remembers fondly in a biographical article on his supervisor, how Chatterjee kept the morale of her students by giving them her own example. “I wish to work as long as I live”, was what she used to say to her students,” writes Pakrashi. And going by her achievements, it seems she followed that philosophy in letter and in spirit.

Dyuti Gupta is an intern with SheThePeople.TV. 

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