Asima Chatterjee – Known as first women scientist of India, an inspiration to not just women but all of us to do more and be better in our life.
On September23rd, 1917 the late Dr. Indranarayan Mukherjee and late Kamala Devi had their first child, Asima Mukherjee in Calcutta, West Bengal. Asima was born of a middle-class family who encouraged education. With her father being a medical doctor, Asima shared his interest in botany and other sciences.
She graduated with Honours in Chemistry from Scottish Church College of the University of Kolkata in 1936 and received the Basanti Das Gold Medal. Despite resistance from society, she went on to pursue her Master’s degree. In the 1930’s when it was very rare for a woman to study chemistry, Asima made a mark for herself by obtaining her Master’s in 1938 with Organic Chemistry as a special paper. She received the Calcutta University Silver Medal and Prize and the Jogmaya Devi Gold Medal.
In 1944, she became the first woman in India to earn a Doctorate in Science. Asima might not have realized it then, but the mark that she was going to leave in the field of organic chemistry was to be an inspiration to many others for generations to come.
In 1945 she married Dr. Baradananda Chatterjee, a well-known physical chemist who later became Professor and Head of the Department of Chemistry, Geology, and Metallurgy and Vice-Principal, Bengal Engineering College, Howrah. They soon had a daughter, Julie. Asima got immense support from her husband who was very helpful and was instrumental in Asima’s successful journey as a scientist.
In 1947, she left for the U.S.A for further studies and research at Lady Brabourne College. Here she worked closely with other prominent professors from different countries. She was awarded the Watumull scholarship in recognition of the work she carried out. She returned to India in 1950 and enthusiastically started her research on alkaloids and coumarins.
Professor Chatterjee was elected as a Fellow of the National Institute of Sciences of India (now known as the Indian National Science Academy) in 1960. She received the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Award for 1961 in Chemistry from the CSIR of India for her valuable contributions to the field of Chemistry of Natural Products.
Her most popular achievements are the development of an epilepsy drug called Ayush 56 and several antimalarial drugs. Her work on vinca alkaloids which are found in Madagascar’s periwinkle plants is also of profound importance. They are used in chemotherapy to help slow down the rate of multiplication of cancer cells.
Apart from this, she wrote and presented several research papers and authored many textbooks. She also firmly believed in collaborative learning and started a research institute to help upcoming chemistry scholars.
Her life and career were devastated in 1967 when she lost both her father and her husband within a span of four months. This was traumatic for her and it drained her emotionally to such an extent that she suffered a massive heart attack. She was admitted to hospital in a critical state. It took three months for her to completely recover. But even after recovering physically she was a mental wreck because of the double tragedy.
It was through the influence and affection of Swami Abhayanandaji Maharaj of the Ramakrishna Math and Mission, Belur, that she regained her mental strength. Also, the unconditional support of her students, staff, and colleagues helped her see a brighter picture. She again started to focus on her work and research with a renewed spirit and energy. Her work ethic which was a very simple “I will work as long as I live” stands as testimony to her undying dedication and love for her profession.
In 1975, she became the first woman to become the President of the Indian Science Congress. Her vision and foresight were reflected in her powerful presidential speech. In the same year, she was awarded the Padma Bhushan by the Government of India for her scientific contributions. She was the recipient of many other prestigious awards and accolades too. She was nominated by the President of India to be a Member of the Rajya Sabha from February 1982 to May 1990.
This is a story of one woman who defied all odds to do what she wanted to, to become what she wanted to and to be what she wanted to be. Prof. Asima Chatterjee’s success was possible because of her strong willpower, determination and passion to do more. She is an inspiration to not just women but all of us to do more and be better in our life, despite all obstacles and personal misfortunes, one step at a time and one landmark at a time.