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Acharya P. C. Ray: Father of Indian chemistry

RAY WAS born on August 2, 1861 in Raruli. After attending village school, he went in 1871 to Calcutta, where he studied at Hare School and the Metropolitan College. The lectures of Alexander Pedler in the college attracted him to chemistry. After taking F.A. diploma (1881) from the University of Calcutta, he proceeded to the University of Edinburgh on a Gilchrist scholarship.

Ray was awarded the Hope Prize Scholarship for his essay on `India before and after the Mutiny.' Ray joined in 1889 a specially created post in the Presidency College.

From 1889 to 1916, he served there. So he attracted many gifted students like J.C. Ghosh, N.R. Dhar and B.B. Dey. He was a patriot who stirred his students with the call `Science can wait, Swaraj cannot'. His research covered a wide range of problems related to food adulteration, especially the purity of ghee and mustard oil; search for the elements missing in the Periodic table.

Ray had special interest in mercury because of its importance in Ayurvedic medicines. The discovery of mercurous nitrate opened a new chapter in his life.

Ray wanted to prepare water soluble mercurous nitrate; but to his surprise, the action of dilute nitric acid with excess mercury resulted in the formation of a yellow crystalline deposit, a compound then known to be unstable. This result was published in 1896 in the Journal of Asiatic Society of Bengal For this discovery he received congratulatory letters from many eminent chemists such as Bertheldt, Roscol and Victor Meyer.

Synthesis of Ammonium Nitrite

Ray developed a new method for the above compound via double displacement between ammonium chloride and silver nitrite. He presented this result before a scientific audience in London, which included William Ramsay. Nature immediately hailed (1912) the successful preparation of this compound in tangible form. The details were published in the Journal of Chemical Society.

Ray wrote more than 100 papers, some in collaboration with his students, on mercury salts and related compounds. He founded the Bengal Chemical and Pharmaceutical Works (1892) Bengal Pottery Works, Calcutta Soap Works and other factories, in the face of obstruction of the British.

Stimulated by Berthelot's `Les origines de l'alchimie' which he came across in the Presidency College Library, he embarked on a plan to write The History of Hindu Chemistry which appeared in two volumes (1902 and 1908).

This work won high acclaim from scholars as shown in Berthelot's review (1903). As Ray was buried in his researches on Hindu chemistry, he lost touch during 1902-1908, with discoveries of Ramsay, Rutherford, Becquevel and the Curies.

On retiring from the Presidency College, he became the first Palit Professor of Chemistry in the University College of Science founded by Sir. Ashutosh Mukherjee. Here he continued his research and teaching for another two decades till 1937.

In the Presidency College it was J.C. Bose and Ray: in the College of Science it became Raman and Ray. The trio Bose-Ray-Raman heralds the birth of modern science in India.

Ray received many honours: honorary doctorates, C.I.E. (1911), Knighthood (1919), President of the Indian Chemical Society (1924).

His life style was so frugal that he gave away most of what he received: savings and pension to propagation of chemistry and to poor students..

The University established the `Acharya P.C. Ray Museum' to house his personal belongings, collection of books and many of Shakespeare's plays with his personal noting. Prafulla Chandra died on June 16, 1944 in his room in the college.

R. Parthasarathy

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