Ray, Prafulla Chandra

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(b.Raruli, Khulna, India [now Bangladesh], 2 August 1861; d.Calcutta, India, 16 June 1944)

Chemistry, history of science.

Ray was the third of seven children born to Harishchandra and Bhuvamohini Ray. After attending the village school he was sent to Calcutta in 1871, where he studied at Hare School. In 1879, soon after receiving his F. A. degree (awarded after two years two years study) from Metropolitan College of the University of Calcutta, Ray went to the University of Edinburgh on the Gilchrist scholarship. Here he obtained the B. Sc. in 1885 and the D. Sc. in 1887, both in inorganic chemistry. He received the Hope Prize after the D. Sc. and thus was able to remain in Edinburgh for another year.

Returning to India in 1888, Ray abandoned Western dress and manners, and reassumed his native traditions. After some disappointments and waiting, even though he had letters of recommendation, in 1889 he secured a modest, specially created position as chemistry lecturer at the Presidency College in Calcutta. Here he distinguished himself as a devoted scholar, inspiring teacher, and tireless researcher. He soon became professor of chemistry and managed to receive funds for establishing a new chemistry laboratory in 1894. He began work on problems related to food adulteration, especially the purity of ghee (clarified butter) and mustard oil, which are used extensively in Bengali foods. His researches were published in Journals of the Asiatic Society of Bengal in 1894.

Ray also initiated research to discover some of the elements missing from the then incomplete periodic table. While analyzing certain rare minerals he found hitherto unobserved yellow crystalline deposits. Careful analyses revealed these to be mercurous nitrate, a compound that until then had been considered unstable. This discovery impressed Ray greatly, and he spent the next several years exploring this salt and its many derivatives. He also developed method as for preparing ammonium nitrite, alkylammonium nitrite, and other compounds. He wrote more than 100 papers, some in collaboration with his students, on mercury salts and related compounds.

Ray was not merely an academic chemist; he wanted to apply his scientific knowledge and skill for the benefit of his countrymen. To this end, in 1901, he founded Bengal Chemical & Pharmaceutical Works, Ltd., which began with a handful of workers and modest capital and grew into one of India’s major chemical industries, employing more than 5,000 people in the I960’s. Ray also established Bengal Pottery Works, Calcutta Soap Works, and Bengal Canning and Condiment Works.

Ray was also an ardent scholar and investigator of scientific history. Stimulated by Berthelot’s Les origines de l’alchimie, he decided to write a history of chemistry in ancient India and was encouraged in this project by Berthelot himself, who sent Ray his Collection des anciens alchemisies grecs and wrote on aspects of ancient Hindu chemistry after reading an essay on the Rasendrasara Samgraha that Ray had written and sent to him. The first volume of The History of Hindu Chemistry appeared in 1902 and the second in 1908. The work won high acclaim from the scholarly world, as is shown in Berthelot’s review in Journal des savants (January 1903). Besides its historical value this work not only revealed ancient Hindu scientific lore to the Western world but also instilled in Ray’s countrymen a sense of pride in their scientific heritage.

In 1916 Ray became professor of chemistry at the newly founded University College of Science and Technology, Calcutta, where he continued research and teaching for another two decades. Much of the money that his industrial ventures earned was given by Ray to workers, to students as stipends and scholarships, to laboratories, and to scientific organizations. He was also involved in social action and politics, and often urged his students to join India’s struggle for independence.

Ray received many honors, including honorary doctorates from the universities of Benares, Calcutta, Dacca, and Durham; Companion of the Order of the Indian Empire (1911); knighthood (1919); the presidency of the Indian Chemical Society (1924); and honorary fellowship of the Chemical Society (London). He also came to be known as Acharya Ray; “Acharya,” a title of respect that could be roughly translated as “erudite master,” is conferred by the people without any ceremony on a distinguished scholar.


I. Original Works. A complete bibliography of Ray’s works is in Gupta (see below); Poggcndorff’, V, 1025, and VI, 2130–2131, lists some of the more important papers. Ray’s autobiography, Life and Experiences of a Bengali Chemist, 2 vols. (Calcutta, 1932–1935), reveals the many facets of his thought.

II. Secondary Literature. For more details on Ray’s life and works, see Monoranjan Gupta, Profulla Chandra Ray: A Biography (Bombay, 1966). The English version of a Bengali study by an associate of Ray’s, it contains numerous quotations, eulogies, and appendixes, and presents many items of interesting information; but it does not deserve the description of “definitive biography” which its author claims for it; Acharya Ray Commemorative Volume (Calcutta, 1932), edited by leading Bengali thinkers on the occasion of Ray’s seventieth birthday, which contains many articles of biographical and scientific interest; and the anonymous “Sir Prafulla Chandra Ray,” in Journal of the Indian Chemical Society, 21 (J 944), 253–260, which includes a complete bibliography. Shorter obituaries are in Twentieth Century (Allahabad), 10 (1944), 531–535; Nature, 154 (1944), 76; Journal of the Chemical Society (1946), 216–218; and J. L. Farmer, “Sir P. C. Ray,” in Journal of Chemical Education, 22 (1945), 324.

Varadaraja V. Raman