Sep 23, 1917 - Nov 22, 2006

Women Scientists of India: Dr. Asima Chatterjee

Indian Academy of Sciences

The first woman scientist to be awarded a Doctor of Science from an Indian University. This exhibit brings together special family archives in collaboration with her daughter Prof. Julie Banerji, and University of Calcutta, and Indian Academy of Sciences.

The Doyenne of Chemistry
Asima Chatterjee was the first woman to be awarded a Doctor of Science by an Indian University - in 1944, by the University of Calcutta. She was also the first woman to be elected as the General President of the Indian Science Congress, a premier institution that oversees scientific research. She has won several prestigious awards such as the S S Bhatnagar award, the C V Raman award, and the P C Ray award; and is the recipient of the Padma Bhushan, the third-highest civilian award, in recognition of her contributions to the field of science. Her area of interest was natural products with special reference to medicinal chemistry.

She made significant contributions in the field of medicinal chemistry with special reference to alkaloids, coumarins and terpenoids, analytical chemistry, and mechanistic organic chemistry. She published around 400 papers in national and international journals and more than a score of review articles in reputed serial volumes. Her publications have been extensively cited and much of her work has been included in several textbooks.

On the request of the late Professor Satyendra Nath Bose, FRS, she wrote Sarai Madhyamic Rasayan, a book in Bengali on chemistry for secondary school students, published by Bangiya Bijnan Parishad, an Institute for the Popularisation of Science founded by SN Bose himself.

She had edited and rewritten Bharater Bonousadhi (originally compiled by the late Dr KP Biswas), a treatise in Bengali on Indian Medicinal Plants in six volumes (Volumes 1-5; 1973; Volume 6; 1977) and published by the Calcutta University Press. As an author/principal-editor she compiled The Treatise on Indian Medicinal Plants published in six volumes in English, earlier by the Publication and Information Directorate, CSIR, then by the National Institute of Science Communication, CSIR and now by the National Institute of Communication and Information Resources, CSIR.

In 1940 Mrs. Chatterjee joined Lady Brabourne College, Calcutta, as the founder-Head of the Department of Chemistry. In 1944 she was appointed a Honorary Lecturer in Chemistry, Calcutta University.

In 1947 she left for the U.S.A. on study leave from Lady Brabourne College. She worked with Professor L. M. Parks, University of Wisconsin, on Naturally Occurring Glycosides, with Professor L. Zechmeister, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, on Carotenoids and Provitamin A during 1948-49 (in recognition of this work she was awarded the Watumull fellowship) and with Professor P. Karrer, N. L., University of Zürich during 1949-50 on Biologically Active Indole Alkaloids, which became her life long interest.

After her return to India in 1950, she started research on alkaloids and coumarins with renewed vigour. Her work on Rauwolfia species brought her into close association with the late Professor Dr. Salimuzzaman Siddiqui, FRS, former Director of Husein Ebrahim Jamal Post Graduate Institute of Chemistry, University of Karachi, Pakistan.

Prof. Asima Chatterjee, with Professor B.C. Guha (the father of modern biochemistry in India) and other Indian Scientists at Cambridge University.

Dr. SC Prakashi, one of her PhD students, recalls: "Being one of her early Ph.D. students I have closely witnessed her initial struggles to establish herself. Those were trying days for research, particularly in the most ill-equipped university laboratories with inadequate chemicals and meager financial assistance. Institutions such as the Department of Science and Technology or Department of Biotechnology under the Government, were yet to come and Council of Scientific & Industrial Research (CSIR) was in the formative stage. Research guides had often to pay not only for chemicals, apparatus, etc., but also the charges of even elementary and almost all spectral analyses to be had from abroad. Scholarships were few and barely enough; most of the students had to work part time or without any scholarship just for the love of work and pay all the necessary cost of thesis submission including printing, examination fee and even the postal charges for dispatching the thesis to the foreign examiner(s) which was compulsory, with hardly any job prospect for research as a profession.

"Before I joined her, she had a grant of Rs 300/- p.a. and three college teachers as part time research students. I was the sole fulltime scholar with laboratory grant of Rs. 1000/- p.a. only with a princely W. B. Govt. stipend of Rs.150/- p.m. For milling plant materials we had to go to the far away workshop of the Jadavpur University and even for UV measurement, we had to go to adjacent Bose Institute where only she was allowed to handle the equipment. We borrowed solvents for plant material extraction mostly from the comparatively well off B.C. Guha’s laboratory as the research grant of even the Heads of Departments used to be only Rs. 1200/-.

"During those hard days, she received encouragement from Profs. Satyen Bose, Meghnath Saha, S. K. Mitra , B. C. Guha and Sir J. C. Ghosh and other Vice-Chancellors of Calcutta University. Her husband, Professor Baradananda Chatterjee, a renowned Physical Chemist himself and the Vice-Principal of the then Bengal Engineering College (now a Deemed University), Sibpur, Howrah, solidly stood by her."

Professor Chatterjee was elected a Fellow of the National Institute of Sciences of India (now known as Indian National Science Academy) in 1960. She received the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Award for 1961 in Chemistry from the CSIR (India) for her valuable contributions in the field of Chemistry of Natural Products.

She is the first lady scientist to be elected as the General President of the Indian Science Congress in 1975. Those who attended the 62nd Session of the Congress held in New Delhi in January, 1975, will remember Mrs. Chatterjee's eloquent and powerful Presidential Address "Science and Technology in India: Present and Future" reflecting her vision and foresight.

In 1975 she was awarded the title Padma Bhusan (the third-highest civilian award) by the Government of India. The same year, recognised as International Women's Year, she was honoured by the Bengal Chamber of Commerce as the Woman of the Year for her scientific contributions.

Prof. Chatterjee is the recipient of multiple awards and honors for her significant contributions, including:

– Sir P. C. Ray (1974) and Professor P. K. Bose (1988) Lectureships of the Indian Chemical Society,
– Sir C. V. Raman Award of the Hari Om Ashram Trust (1982) by the University Grants Commission,
– Professor Sisir Kumar Mitra Lectureship (1984) of the Indian National Science Academy,
– Sir Asutosh Mookerjee Gold Medal (1989) and Dr. G. P. Chatterjee Lectureship (1994) of the Indian Science Congress Association,
– Goya Award (1992) by the Goyal Foundation, Kurukshetra University,
– the Indira Gandhi Priyadarshini Award, All India Unit Conference (1994),
– the Silver Jubilee Award (1995) of the Central Council for Research in Ayurveda and Siddha (Government of India),
– the Eminent Teacher Award (1996) by Calcutta University,
– and the Rathindra Award of the Visva Bharati University (1997).

Asima Chatterjee (née Mukherjee) was born on September 23, 1917, in Calcutta, being the elder of the two children of late Dr. Indranarayan Mukherjee and late Kamala Devi. In 1945 she married Dr. Baradananda Chatterjee, D.Sc. F.N.A., a well-known physical chemist who became Professor and Head of the Department of Chemistry, Geology and Metallurgy and Vice-Principal, Bengal Engineering College, Howrah. They soon had their daughter, Julie.

Prof. Baradananda Chatterjee had a profound influence on his wife. Without his constant inspiration, encouragement and co-operation it would have been impossible for Mrs. Chatterjee to dedicate herself to the cause of science. Members of Prof. Chatterjee's laboratory considered themselves as one large family and to this her husband had much contribution. On Saturday evenings as well as on holidays he used to come to visit them. Often her students discussed with him certain problems which they felt shy to bring to the notice of their teacher. They considered him as their friend and well-wisher.

Prof. Asima Chatterjee with her daughter Julie at dinner, after having returned to India from Zurich.

Prof. Chatterjee's life had a unique example of harmony and commitment between professional and home-life. She had always been a devoted wife, mother, daughter, elder sister, mother-in-law and grandmother. She would rise up early in the morning and would complete all household chores, including cooking, before she left for the University. On returning, late in the evening, she would again return to house-work.

Prof. Asima Chatterjee with husband Prof. Baradananda Chatterjee, and daughter Julie.

The year 1967 proved disastrous for Professor (Mrs) Chatterjee. She lost her father and then her husband within a period of four months. Unable to bear this double tragedy, she suffered a massive heart attack at the University College of Science and had to be hospitalised in a critical state. She lingered between life and death for days together. It took nearly three months for her recovery but by then she had broken down completely. It was through the influence and affection of Late Swami Abhayanandaji Maharaj of the Ramakrishna Math and Mission, Belur, that she regained her mental strength. The love and affection of her students, colleagues and staff members of the Department of Chemistry, helped in bringing her back to normal activities.

This is an earlier photograph from 1948, when the entire famliy was visiting the United States. Here Prof. Chatterjee carries a sleeping Julie, at the Ramakrishna-Vedanta Centre in Los Angeles on the night of Kali Puja celebrations.

Prof. Asima Chatterjee with daughter Julie and husband Prof. Baradananda Chatterjee at their home.

Their only daughter, Julie, grew up with the same enthusiasm for the field of organic chemistry. She soon became the Head of the Department of Chemistry at the University of Calcutta. Julie married Professor Avijit Banerji, also from the Department of Chemistry at the same University and had a son, Aniruddha Banerji.

Prof. Asima Chatterjee is seen here with grandson Aniruddha, who has pursued Life Sciences and obtained a PhD working at the Chittaranjan National Cancer Research Institute, Kolkata. He continues as a Lecturer at St. Xavier's College, Kolkata.

Research, Achievements and Notable Contributions
The research activities of Professor Asima Chatterjee extended over a period of nearly sixty years. She made significant contributions in the field of medicinal chemistry with special reference to alkaloids, coumarins and terpenoids, analytical chemistry, and mechanistic organic chemistry. Besides her keen interest on fundamental research, Professor Chatterjee always stressed on the utilization of phytochemicals from indigenous plants as drugs and drug-intermediates. 

Chatterjee successfully developed the anti-epileptic drug, 'Ayush-56' from Marsilia minuta and the anti-malarial drug from Alstonia scholaris, Swrrtia chirata, Picrorphiza kurroa and Ceasalpinna crista. The patented drugs have been marketed by several companies.

Among her contributions, a few notable ones are:
– Initiated chemical investigation of alkaloids in Rauwolfia canescens.
– Investigated the chemistry of almost all principal types of indole alkaloids.
– Contributions with regard to elucidation of structure and stereochemistry of ajmalicine and sarpagine.
– First suggested stereo-configuration of sarpagine.
– Isolated and characterized geissoschizine, a key precursor in biogenesis of indole alkaloids from Rhazya stricta.
– Carried out synthetic studies on a number of complex indole alkaloids, quinoline and isoquinoline alkaloids.
– Developed simplified and normal procedure for preparation of required beta-phenylethanolamines in connection with alkaloid synthesis.
– Elucidated the structure of luvangetin isolated from Luvanga scandens.
– Studied the action of various Lewis acids on prenylated coumarins and devised simple synthetic routes to a number of complex coumarin systems.
– Investigated mechanism of acid-catalysed hydramine fission of beta phenylethanol amines.
– Introduced use of periodic acid as a reagent for detection and location of both terminal and exocyclic double bonds in organic compounds.

She graduated with Honours in Chemistry in 1936 from Scottish Church College and received the Basanti Das Gold Medal. During her post-graduate studies at the University College of Science, Calcutta, she came in close contact with eminent teachers and educationists like Acharya Prafulla Chandra Ray, Professors Prafulla Chandra Mitter, Pulin Behari Sarkar, Jogendra Chandra Bardhan, Prafulla Kumar Bose, Jnanendra Nath Mukherjee and Priyadaranjan Ray, all of whorn influenced her future career. She obtained the M.Sc. degree in 1938 with Organic Chemistry as special paper and received the Calcutta University Silver Medal and Prize and Jogmaya Devi Gold Medal. She then started her research career under the able guidance of Professor Prafuila Kumar Bose, one of the pioneer Natural Product Chemists of India.

In this photograph, she stands with two of her classmates, Dr. Kamal Chakraborty & Dr. J.L Bose, at National Chemical Laboratory, in Pune, Maharashtra.

She visited several countries on invitation and to participate in Scientific symposia and conferences and to deliver lectures on her research contributions.

Here, she can be seen a leading member of the Indian delegation when she visited the USSR in 1965 on an Indo-Soviet Cultural Exchange Programme, Tbilisi, Georgia (formerly USSR).

Professor Chatterjee acted as Chairperson in the UNESCO symposia on Phytochemistry held in Kuala Lumpur (1957) and Hong Kong (1961), in the UPAC Symposia on Chemistry of Natural Products held in Zurich (1955), Australia (1960), Japan (1964) and JSSR (1970). She participated in the meetings of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1970 and 1971 and visited various British Universities.

Here she stands with Prof. Linus Pauling (Nobel Peace Prize awardee) and her Research Scholars

She delivered a number of Oration and Convocation lectures in Universities and Institutes throughout India. A large number of students obtained their Ph.D. and D.Sc. degrees under her guidance, many of whom are occupying topmost positions in academia and industry in India and abroad. Many of them have developed their Schools on Natural Product Chemistry and are playing key-roles in the development of the area in India and abroad, in colleges, research institutions, universities, industries and policy-making bodies.

As a scientist and academician she was nominated by the then President of India as a member of the Rajya Sabha (February 1982-April 1984; May 1984-May 1990).

As a mark of her deep regard and devotion to her late husband, Professor Baradananda Chatterjee, she had instituted the Baradananda Memorial Lectureship' at the Bengal Engineering College, Howrah, to be delivered every year by a leading chemist of India having significant contribution in the field of soil chemistry or corrosion.

Professor Chatterjee's rise to eminence was possible due to her sincere devotion to duty, hard work and unquenched thirst for knowledge. She was always learning throughout her life, never hesitating to learn more, even from her students, even in her senior years. A true 'Karma Yogi', she believed in carrying out her duties and her responsibilities without aspiring for the results and rewards.

Julie Banerji's personal archives, University of Calcutta, Indian Academy of Sciences
Credits: Story

Photographs courtesy and rights:
Prof. Julie Banerji, personal familly archives

Text rights:
Authored by Prof. Julie Banerji:
'Professor (Mrs.) Asima Chatterjee - A Biographical Sketch', Eightieth Birth Anniversary Souvenir, published by the Birth Anniversary Celebration Committee, Department of Chemistry, University of Calcutta, 1997, pp 15-24;

and revised version from 'Biographical Memoirs' honoured to Deceased Fellows, Indian National Science Academy, New Delhi, 2007, Volume 32, pp 179-215.

Dr. S.C. Pakrashi, 'Asima Chatterjee', in Lilavati's Daughters: the Women Scientists of India, edited by Rohini Godbole, Ram Ramaswamy, Indian Academy of Sciences, Bangalore, 2008, pp 9-12.

Indian Academy of Sciences, Fellows Database, p. 192.

Special thanks to Prof. Kaliprasanna Dhara, University of Calcutta, in making this online exhibit possible.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Translate with Google