P.C. lives of thousands of planters and those associated

P.C. Ray was an eminent
Indian scientist who is considered by many to be the founder of the tradition
of modern chemistry in India. He was also a pioneer of chemical research,
chemical education & chemical industries in India, founding Bengal Chemicals
and Pharmaceuticals, India’s first pharmaceutical company. In 1902, Ray
published the first volume of a landmark work called History of Hindu Chemistry & laid the foundation of the social
history of science.

When P.C. Ray returned
from England in 1889, having obtained his doctoral degree from Edinburgh
University, he set himself the task of manufacturing of some of the chemicals imported
from England. Until 1897 he did a great deal of work on the detection of
adulteration of edible fats and foodstuffs based on physico-chemical data. The
findings of this research were published in the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal and Chemical Examination of foodstuffs between 1889 and 1894. Ray was
also closely associated with the National Council of Education, a programme committed
to scientific self reliance and the development of scientific & technical
education appropriate to the needs of Indian society. Ray hoped to create a
degree of specialization in the field of synthetic organic chemistry, despite
being himself an inorganic chemist. Consequently, he pleaded for the
establishment of a school of synthetic organic chemistry in India. He was of
the opinion that Chemistry was the only among the sciences ‘calculated to
develop the resources of our country and increase its wealth.’ In his later
years, Ray’s close relationship with the needs of the peasantry and the masses
in general was reflected in his later years in famine and flood relief work.

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In 1894, while the idea
for setting up the Bengal Chemical and Pharmaceutical Works was mooted, Ray had
already begun to devote time to the study of Indian alchemy. Bengal Chemical
and Pharmaceutical Works was conceived as an industry with an in-house research
laboratory which rolled out preparations such as Spirit of Nitrite Ether,
Tincture of Nux Vomica & Syrup Ferri Iodidi. The programme of economic
self-reliance had to be premised upon a programme of scientific and
technological self-reliance, and in concrete terms, this is what swadeshi was
all about. The case of alizarin was especially significant since it had hit the
Indian indigo industry hard, jeopardizing the lives of thousands of planters
and those associated with the textile industry. The establishment of a system
of industrial chemistry was thus imperative for the health of the economy. Ray
then drew up a plan for the development of the chemical industry, which
commenced with the manufacture of acids and reagents absolutely essential for
any chemical processing industry. Here, Ray proposed the installation of a
sulphuric acid plant, and based on the manufacture of reagents and acids, he
planned the manufacturing process: starting from soaps to paper pulp to
fertilizers and oils etc. Ray drew up a scheme of research priorities for
disciplines where chemistry’s impact was most significant.

From 1894 to 1896 Ray
undertook analytical investigations of Indian rocks and ores to fill the gap in
Mendeleev’s periodic table. While pursuing this task, Ray synthesized mercurous
nitrite in 1895. During these years he pursued the study of mercuric compounds,
followed by studies on nitrites and hyponitrites of other metals, including
alkaline earths in the pure states. The first paper was published in the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal
. The article was also mentioned in Nature (1896). His subsequent work was
published in the prestigious Proceedings
of the Chemical Society and the Journal
of the Chemical Society, which ranked high in the profession. Ray’s network
was to investigate the place of mercury in diverse chemical traditions, and
thereby to reveal the therapeutic properties of mercuric compounds, if they
were such.  

The renowned French
chemist Marcelin Berthelot published his Les
Origines de l’ Alchimie in 1885,
however the work was incomplete in its treatment of Iranian, Indian and Chinese
sources. This work by Berthelot placed an irrefutable foundation concerning the
origins of alchemy in ancient Greece and, its diffusion in the Mediterranean
basin, and subsequently to the Orient. Ray’s examination of the development of
Indian alchemy was at variance with Berthelot’s account. In 1896, Ray wrote to
Berthelot, offering textual evidence that contested the claim that the Syrian
historians carried Greek alchemy to India and China. Berthelot also benefitted
from these encounters with Ray as it enlarged his vision of the origins of
alchemy beyond that the Mediterranean.

Ray published the first
volume of his landmark work called History
of Hindu Chemistry in 1902 which was the first of its kind. It was based on
a close reading of relevant Sanskrit manuscripts and texts. Gradually, the work
became a standard reference in histories of pharmacopoeia and histories of
chemistry. Svante Arrhenius amongst many others assigned priority to India in
the use of mercurial and metallic drugs over Paracelsus, based on Ray’s work. The
continued relevance of Ray’s work arose from the issues concerning scholars
about the nature of Indian alchemy and its relation to chemistry, the issues
concerning the circulation of Tantric knowledge not just about alchemy but
medical practices. It offered one of the early discussions of the Needham
question in the South Asian context, even before Needham framed the question in
the form known to us today. His work provided practicing Indian chemists with
an anchor for their own historical and cultural bearings. In his work, Ray
attempted to recover the past of science in India, to legitimate science and
also attempted towards a social critique, for there was no use lamenting the
past.