Prafulla Chandra Ray — The neighbours did not know what to make of the young man. That he was a college lecturer and scientist, they knew. And he did experiments in the small laboratory he had set up at his house. But what scientific purpose could he hope to serve by dumping on the terrace sackfuls of cattle bones he had got from the local butcher? They had put up with the odours that had often been wafted to them by the breeze from his laboratory. But the stench from rotting bone and flesh was unbearable.
Crows had also been littering houses all around with bones picked up from the terrace. After several days of this they could stand it no longer. They told the young man to take away the bones. If he did not, they would call the municipal authorities.
At this juncture a friend came to the rescue of the young man. He had a vacant plot of land a little away from houses and the bones could be dumped there. That was done, and one evening, when he found that the bones had been well dried by the sun, the young man made a bonfire of them. There was trouble again. Policemen, attracted by the fire, arrived, and he had a hard time convincing them that he was no murderer destroying evidence and that it was not human bones that were being burnt.
The next morning he took the ashes of the bones to his laboratory and treated them with sulphuric acid. When the superphosphate of lime thus produced was mixed with soda, a solution of phosphate of soda was formed. The solution was then put into a large basin and boiled. This produced lumps of phosphate of soda crystals. The young man took a lump and chewed it. He smiled happily. He had converted the waste cattle bones into a medicinal compound from which a nerve tonic could be made.
The young man began to produce the tonic on a large scale. It was cheaper than the imported product available in the market and was as effective. In the beginning, druggists were not ready to keep this deshi medicine, but doctors who knew the young man and the effectiveness of the tonic canvassed it and it became popular.
This was the modest beginning of the Bengal Chemical and Pharmaceutical Works, now one of the biggest chemical firms in the country, and the young man was Prafulla Chandra Ray. Today, Ray is recognized as the father of India’s chemical industry. And he not only developed centers of research in chemistry and trained brilliant young chemists but also, by original research, placed India in a high position in the world of chemistry.
A hundred years ago India was altogether different from the country we know today. There was hardly any industry in the country. The British used to send raw materials from the land to Britain and elsewhere to feed their industries. The products they manufactured were imported to India to be sold at high prices. The result was costly imported products and widespread unemployment in the country.
In 1888, when Ray returned from Edinburgh with a D.Sc., the plight of the country disturbed him. He discarded European dress, began to wear khaddar and decided to do something to industrialize the country. Ray got the post of lecturer at Presidency College in Calcutta. He had only a small salary, but he saved what he could to provide the capital he required to start an industry.
In his spare time he conducted experiments in his laboratory at home. He first took to the production of citric acid from lemon and citron. It proved to be a failure, as lemon and citron were costly and citric acid was cheaply available in the market.
He had read in a textbook that “sulphuric acid is the mother of industries”. Therefore, he tried to produce the acid. When he met with failure again, phosphate of soda attracted his attention. With his “cattle bones experiment” he eventually succeeded. The industry he set up prospered. What is more, his example was followed by others. Industries began to grow in the country. Before he died in 1944 all his dreams had come true, except the independence of the country, which came three years later.
Ray was born on August 2, 1861, at Raruli-Katipara, now in Bangladesh, in a wealthy and cultured family. His interest turned from literature to science after he read Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography. Franklin’s famous’ “kite experiment” to know the nature of lightning thrilled him. Apart from proficiency in various languages, Sanskrit, Latin, French and English, he was well versed in politics, economics and history.
Ray did not marry and lived among his friends and students. Although the industry he had built was amassing lakhs of rupees, he lived like a hermit. He would not spend a paisa more than was necessary on himself, but would donate thousands of rupees for the benefit of the poor and the afflicted. He took an active part in politics. Mahatma Gandhi and G.K. Gokhle were among his friends.
His main contribution to chemistry was the discovery of mercurous nitrite in 1896. he also extracted several of its derivatives. His book, The History of Hindu Chemistry, has been widely acclaimed.