For women in India, it wasn’t the worst of times but it wasn’t the best of times either when Dr. Asima Chatterjee walked into the space of sciences dominated by men. With her determination, she broke every stereotype people had about women at that time. It was a time when women weren’t even encouraged to have higher education, but Dr Chatterjee made heads turn by becoming the first woman to earn a Doctorate of Science. Despite societal resistance, she achieved it just at the age of 27 years from the University of Calcutta.
The doyenne of chemistry in India
Dr. Asima Chatterjee was born on September 23, 1917, in Calcutta (now Kolkata) in a middle-class family. Her father Narayan Mukherjee was a medical doctor and was very much interested in botany. He was possibly the inspiration behind her early fascination with medicinal plants and subsequent study of organic chemistry. Prafulla Chandra Roy and Satyendra Nath Bose were among the notable instructors of hers under whom she did her doctoral research on the chemistry of plant products and synthetic organic chemistry.
Post her academic life, her research remained largely focused on chemistry of natural products (medicinal plants) and resulted in the developments of anticonvulsants (most notably Ayush-56), antimalarial drugs and chemotherapy drugs among others.
Her 40-year-long research on vinca alkaloids compounds extracted from Madagascar periwinkle plants is perhaps her greatest contribution to chemistry. These compounds are now used to slow down the multiplication of cancer cells in cancer patients and are part of the chemotherapy treatment. She also discovered the science behind the curable properties of Bael tree in gastrointestinal disorders.
Personal life of Dr. Asima Chatterjee
It wasn’t easy for Dr Chatterjee to achieve what she had achieved. In those days, scholarships were few and not sufficient. She had to move from her institute to other institutes very often to access, learn and handle equipment. Even after her doctorate, to dedicate herself to the cause of science wasn’t easy, especially being a woman. But her husband, Dr Baradananda Chatterjee, whom she married in 1945, remained her strength. He stood by her always. They had one daughter, Julie.
Right after her doctorate, Dr Chatterjee was appointed as the Honorary Lecturer in Chemistry, Calcutta University in 1944. To maintain her newly married life and job, she would wake up early in the morning, do the cooking and all the household chores, go to the university, come back and again get involved in her household works.
In 1947, she left India and worked with different eminent professors in the University of Wisconsin, University of Zürich, and California Institute of Technology. She returned to India in the year 1950. In the year 1962, at the University of Calcutta, she was appointed as Khaira professor of Chemistry, a position she held for the next 20 years.
In 1967, she lost her father as well as her husband within four months which broke her down completely. She suffered a massive heart attack- but she lived, and gathered herself together again leaving behind the tragedies. She was, meanwhile, also appointed as the Honorary Coordinator of the Special Assistance Programme by University Grant Commission in 1972.
Awards and death
Dr Chatterjee was the recipient of India’s most prestigious science award the ‘Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize’. She was awarded this in 1961 for her achievements in the field of chemical science. She was the first woman recipient and it would take another 14 years before another woman could receive the award.
She was conferred the third highest civilian award the Padma Bhushan in the year 1975 and was nominated by the President as the member of Rajya Sabha from 1982 to 1990. She was also the first female scientist to serve as the General President of the Indian Science Congress Association. Besides these, she also received Sir C.V. Raman Award and other numerous awards from different universities and organizations.
Dr Asima Chatterjee died on November 22, 2006, in Kolkata at the age of 89. Dr Chatterjee’s devotion to her duty and thirst for knowledge irrespective of hurdles is an inspiration to all. She was most genuine symbols of feminism the world can look up to.