science & technology

WOMEN'S HISTORY MONTH: Asima Chatterjee

Karthika S Nair | Mar 14 2020
Image credits: wikipedia

Asima Chatterjee: Inventor And Pioneer In The Field Of S.T.E.M

I wish to work as long as I live." - Asima Chatterjee.

Asima Chatterjee was a pioneer of her time as one of the women to create a breakthrough in the field of STEM. A renowned Organic Chemist, she helped in developing anti-epileptic drugs and anti-malarial drugs in her research.

On her 100th birth anniversary, Google created a doodle to honour her and ensure that people knew her name and achievements as an inventor. 

Early Life And Education

Asima Mookerjee was born on September 23rd 1917 in Calcutta in a middle well to do family. Her father Indra Narayan Mookerjee was a doctor and was very supportive of Asima and her sister's education, which was rare at the time. Her father loved Botany and her interest in the field of medicine began with her curiosity regarding the medicinal properties of plants. 

In 1936, she did her higher studies in chemistry from the Scottish Church College of the University of Calcutta. There weren't many girls in her class as women were rarely pushed to study more. 

From the Rajabazar Science College ( in University of Calcutta) received a master's degree in 1938 and a doctoral degree in 1944 in organic chemistry.

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Image credit" wikimedia

Her research on the plant products and synthetic organic chemistry helped her earn a Doctorate of Science, thus she broke the glass ceiling by becoming the first woman to earn the honour in 1944. 

She worked closely with the renowned chemist Prafulla Chandra Ray, who is known as the father of chemical science in India, for her research.

She also worked with the famous physicist Satyendra Nath Bose and Lásló Zechmeister at University of Wisconsin and Caltech for her post-doctoral research. 

She founded the department of chemistry in the Lady Brabourne College of the University of Calcutta after joining there. 

Marriage 

Asima Mookerjee then married physical-chemist Prof. Baradananda Chatterjee in 1945. The couple has a daughter Julie. Her husband became the Head of the Department of Chemistry, Geology, Metallurgy and Vice-Principal of Bengal Engineering College in Howrah. While Asima and her students struggled with research with less funds and facilities, her husband encouraged her and even helped in counselling her students. 

The immense support from her husband, parents and daughter helped her make a perfect work-life balance. After the deaths of both her husband and father, Asima was able to bounce back to work after getting support from her colleagues who were like a family away from family. 

Research

Due to the curiosity, she developed as a child and interest towards the medicinal properties of plants, Asima Chatterjee's research centred in natural products chemistry and biologically active compounds found in plants. 

At that time, it was very difficult for scientists to work due to fewer funds from the government and Asima had to invest her own money to send samples for analysis outside India. 

She struggled to get the necessary chemicals and reagents for her research and was barely able to pay her students' salaries. 

Today, it is easier for researchers due to the technology available, like advanced spectroscopy and Nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR).

This was not available back then and scientists had to rely on old instruments for the sake of purifying the minuscule amounts of compounds from plants for research.

Her dedication and the cooperation from her students and assistants helped her achieve the results. Passion fuelled the process that makes a dream become a reality. 

Through her research, she developed anti-epileptic, anti-convulsive, and chemotherapy drugs to treat patients. 

The anti-epileptic drug - 'Ayush-56'-  which she developed from Marsilia minuta is her most successful work and till date, it is used commercially. 

From plants like Alstonia scholaris, Swrrtia chirata, Picrorphiza kurroa and Ceasalpinna crista, she developed anti-malarial drugs with her team. 

She also dedicated 40 years of her time to research on cancer and anti-cancer growth drugs. She studied a class of compounds called 'alkaloids' which were used effectively in chemotherapy for cancer patients. 

Back then. cancer marked a full stop in a person's life. Therefore, research and results created by scientists like Asima Chatterjee helped in extending the lifeline of the patients, thus installing hope for the families and society in general.

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Image credit" wikimedia

Asima Chatterjee never stopped working. She published as many as 400 research papers in both national and international journals. She expressed her love for science and work over and over. 

Awards And Honours

As a scientist and a woman who created an impact in the field of STEM, Asima Chatterjee is still regarded as an icon. She was elected to the Indian National Science Academy in the year 1960. In 1961, she became the first woman to receive the Shanti Swaroop Bhatnagar Prize in Chemistry. She won both the prestigious CV Raman Award and PC Ray Award.

Since 1962, for almost two decades, she held the prestigious position in the University of Calcutta as Khaira Professor of Chemistry. 

The University Grants Commission (UGC) appointed her as the coordinator of a special assistance programme in teaching and research in natural chemistry.

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Image credits: freepik

In 1975, Asima Chatterjee was awarded the civilian award Padma Bhushan by the government of India for her service in the field of chemistry and medicine. 

She represented India in various national and international groups, meeting and conferences including the UNESCO to voice what is needed. 

She died at the age of 90 but not before passing the torch to her daughter Julie who also became a chemist. 

Her legacy involves her hard work, dedication and breakage of many barriers to overcome and achieve for herself and her country people.