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Father of science movement in India

MAHENDRALAL SIRCAR was born (November 2, 1833) in a poor family at Paikpara near Calcutta. He studied at the Have School, where David Hare a great educationist a deep impression on him.

After the latter's death in June 1842, he used to attend the memorial meeting to pay his homage.

Later he joined the Hindu College but left it for the Medical College which offered better courses in science -- left anatomy, physiology and medicine. Besides he studied on his own the basic experimental sciences, physics and chemistry. He took the degree in medicine in 1863, the second M.D. of the Calcutta University.

Sircar was attracted by Homeopathy, the new system of medicine. He read a paper The supposed uncertainity in Medical Science (1867) in the British Medical Association meeting and advocated support for Homeopathy. His friends disapproved his stand and threw him out of the Association.

To propagate his views on the subject, he started in January 1868 a new journal Calcutta Journal of Medicine. His aim was not merely the cause of Homeopathy but unbiased thinking and assiduous cultivation of scientific spirit.

Although ostracized for his interest in Hemopothy, his practice in modern medicine rose steadily. So he found himself at the top of his profession with an unchallenged supremacy.

He was a favourite physician of Iswar Chandar Vidyasagar (1820-1891). In 1919 medical views were sought by the Indian Plague Commission.

His medical advice was sought for treating Sri Ramakrishna, he visited the spiritual giant several times between October 1885 and August 1886. The dialogues between them have ben acclaimed as the encounter between spirituality and modern science.

Mahendralal combined his vacation with social work on; on one such occasion near the team-town of Baidyanathdham; the terrible plight of lepers from various parts of the country crowding there touched his compassion. He established in July 1892 the Rajkumari Leper Asylum in memory of his wife.

The mission for cultivation of science

Mahendralal initiated the historic science movement in August 1869 by starting it as a science class at his residence every Sunday. He distributed a 8-page printed pamphlet and distributed it to the public and the press. There was enthusiastic response from several newspapers.

Over Rs. 80,000 were received as donations. Thus the Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science (IACS) came into being on 29 July 1876 with Mahendralal as the Secetary.

The foundation stone at 210, Bow bazar Street, laid by Sir Richard Temple, the Lt. Governor. Mahendralal relentlessly pursued his efforts at a time when there was no real crowing for the pursuit of science.

The visionary in him carried the flame with zeal and optimism for Indian science till his death on February 23, 1904. Within a decade his followers Asutosh Mukherjee and C.V. Raman brought in vindication of the pioner's vision.

Lord Lytton, Viceroy of India, visited IACS (18 March 1880) to listen to Mahendralal's lecture on ``Ultragaseous State of Matter'' followed by a demonstration with Crookes Tube which was invented in 1873. Professor K.S. Krishnan used to say that Mahendralal came very close to the discovery of electron. Mahendral was invited to repeat the experiement before a select audience at the Government House.

IACS shifted to the new premises which Lord Rippon inaguratedon 12 March 1884, when he contributed Rs.1,000 towards the endownment.

He exhorted donors to come forward with a donation and hoped that ``with Father Lafont as our coachman and Mahendralal to look after the passengers, there is no doubt we shall drive rapidly on''. His example was quickly emulated by the Maharaja of Dharbhanga and the Nizam.

In the beginning the staff consisted of Mahenderlal and Fr. Engene Lafont S.J. (1837-1904), a Jeswit prest of St. Xaveirs' College. The latter continued to give lectures for 19 years every Thursday, which was his only day of leisure.

Mahendralal's science movement inspired the youth community of the 1880s. P.C. Ray then a student at the Presidency College, attended the IACS lectures.

Ashutosh Mukherjee acknowledged the development of his interest in science through the lectures of Father Lafont and Mahendralal Sircar. He returned the debt by lecturing at the IACS on mathematical physics from 1887 to 1890. P.N. Bose, student of Fr. Lafont of the Geological Survey of India delivered lectures on geology. R.C. Dutta delivered for 14 years, till his death in 1899, popular lectures in Bengali, which demonstrated the utility of vernacular for teaching science.

J.C. Bose, Professor of Physics, Presidency College, actively assisted Mahendralal from 1886 till end of 1888.

The lady participants came from several colleges - Doveton, La Martiniere and the Calcutta Medical College.

They got their inspiration for science studies chiefly from Mahendralal and Lafont.

Mahendralal's career was built on his flourishing practice as a physician, which gave him name and fame. Amidst the demands on his time, he devoted himself to build the IACS. The Calcutta University conferred on him the Doctorate degree in February 1898.

During his life-time, Mahendralal could not raise the resources for appointing paid lectures and research scholars.

His reports in the IACS annual meetings during 1899-1903 were full of agony and lamentation that his mission had not succeeded. But he was too self-reliant to appeal to the Government for financial assistance.

The Bombay scheme

In October 1898, he saw the announcement of J.N. Tata (1839-1904) to bequeathe a part of his property, worth Rs.30 lakhs towards the establishment of a new institute of science, which took shape as the Indian Institute of Science at Bangalore.

He was disillusioned with his countrymen particularly the rich who were not emulating Tata's munificience. He felt Bengal had neglected its own institute of scientific research, which was 30 years old. He concluded his speech at the meeting on 27 April 1899 with a couplet,

Now my weary lips I close

Leave me, leave me to repose.

Sir John Woodburn, Lt. Governor, who presided over the meeting observed: `my obdurate heart was melted by my friend Dr.Mahendralal; as a token of sympathy, I offer a small donation'.

It is at the laboratories of IACS C.V. Raman discovered in 1928 that when a beam of coloured light entered a liquid, a fraction of it scattered by the liquid was of a different colour. He paid tributes in a civic reception at Calcutta on 26 June 1931 on the award of Noble Prize in Physics.

"It was late Dr. Mahendralal Sircar, who by founding IACS made it possible for scientific aspirations of my early years to continue burning brightly.

He devoted a lifetime of labour to the institution which he created and equipped in the hope that it would someday be utilised for the advancement of in India. Its doors were open, awaiting the arrival of someone who could utilise the resources it offered. That arrival happened to be myself.'' (A.K. Biswas: Gleanings of the Past and the Science Movement, The Asiatic Society, 1 Park Street, Calcutta 700 016, March 2000)

R.Parthasarathy

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