Asima Chatterjee, a Calcutta native who was a groundbreaking pioneer in the field of chemistry, and whose work is still helping cancer patients and others to this day, is the subject of the September 23 Google Doodle.
“When Dr. Asima Chatterjee was growing up in Calcutta in the 1920s and 1930s, it was almost unheard of for a woman to study chemistry. But that didn’t stop Chatterjee: she not only completed her undergraduate degree in organic chemistry, but she also went on to receive a Doctorate of Science — the first woman to do so in India!” Google notes.
The Google Doodle is running on what would have been Chatterjee’s 100th birthday. According to Google, “Today’s Doodle pays homage to this trailblazer and her great accomplishments in the name of science.”
The inspirational Chatterjee once famously said, “I wish to work as long as I live.”
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Dr. Chatterjee, Who Was Born in Calcutta, India to a Doctor Father, Studied the Medicinal Properties of Plants
Asima Chatterjee’s research into plants’ medicinal powers helped develop drugs that treated well-known ailments like epilepsy and malaria.
According to Google, “Dr. Chatterjee primarily studied the medicinal properties of plants native to India. Throughout her career, her research contributed to the development of drugs that treated epilepsy and malaria.” An article on Chatterjee’s career by S.C. Pakrashi, who was a PHD student of Chatterjee’s, reports that Chatterjee “successfully developed the anti-epileptic drug, Ayush-56 from Marsilia minuta and the anti-malarial drug from Alstonia scholaris, Swrrtia chirata, Picrorphiza kurroa and Ceasalpinna crista. The patented drugs have been marketed by several companies.”
A tribute to Chatterjee’s career by Shibnath Ghosal reports that Chatterjee “started her research work under the guidance of Professor Prafulla Kumar Bose, one of the pioneer natural product chemists in India. She obtained D.Sc. degree (1944) for her excellent work on naturally occurring indole alkaloids and coumarins. Incidentally, she was the first lady to obtain D.Sc. degree of any University in India.”
Professor Asisth De, writing on Chatterjee, called her “one of the best known Indian natural products chemists of the last century. She has made significant contributions to the chemistry of alkaloids, coumarins and other plant products. By her relentless research efforts, she was able to isolate a large number of natural products from many species of plants indigenous to the Indian subcontinent, unravel their structure by degradative, spectroscopic and synthetic procedure.”
According to De, Asima Chatterjee, whose maiden name was Mookerjee, was born on September 23, 1917, in Calcutta, the eldest of the two children of Indra Narayan Mookerjee, a medical doctor, and his wife, Kamala Devi. “Her brother, Sarashi Ranjan Mookerjee, later became a renowned surgeon and collaborated with his sister in her research on medicinal plants,” De reports. Pakrashi notes that Chatterjee’s father was an amateur botanist, which may have originally stimulated her interest in plants’ healing powers.
2. Asima Chatterjee’s Research Contributed to Modern Chemotherapy Treatments
Asima Chatterjee’s contributions to the field of chemistry are still felt today, especially in the area of cancer treatment.
“Dr. Chatterjee’s most noted contribution to the field, however, was her work on vinca alkaloids. Alkaloids are compounds made from plants, often to treat medical ailments. Vinca alkaloids, which come from the Madagascar periwinkle plant, are used today in chemotherapy treatment because they help slow down or stall the multiplying of cancer cells,” Google reported.
She banded together on this work with scientists in America and Switzerland. “Later (1948-49), Dr. (Mrs.) Chatterjee worked with Professor L. Zechmeister at California Institute of Technology, USA, on carotenoids, and (1949-50) with Professor Paul Karner, N.L., at University of Zurich, Switzerland, on alkaloids, which remained her life-long interest,” Ghosal reports.
Pakrashi wrote that Chatterjee inspired her students, who toiled with little financial help, but was a taskmaster as well.
“She was a very hard task master, never satisfied with performance and would never compromise with the standard of work,” according to Pakrashi.
3. Chatterjee’s Life Work Was Honored by Universities & the Indian Government
Dr. Chatterjee’s “groundbreaking contributions to medicine were recognized by universities all over the world,” Google noted.
“She received numerous accolades from the Indian government, including some of the highest awards (like the Padma Bhushan) and an appointment to the upper house of Parliament.”
According to Pakrashi, Chatterjee “published around 400 papers in national and international journals and more than a score of review articles in reputed serial volumes. Her publications have been extensively cited and much of her work has been included in several textbooks.”
“When Dr. Asima Chatterjee was growing up in Calcutta in the 1920s and 1930s, it was almost unheard of for a woman to study chemistry,” the Mirror reports.
4. Chatterjee Founded the Department of Chemistry at a College & Was One of the First Indian Women to Receive a Scientific Doctorate in That Country
“A firm believer in collaboration and teaching, Dr. Chatterjee also founded and led the department of chemistry at Lady Brabourne College. She started a research institute and mentored many of India’s rising chemistry scholars,” Google noted.
According to Ignite, Chatterjee’s scientific acumen was obvious early on.
“Asima Chatterjee was an excellent student while growing up in India, eventually graduating with honors in chemistry from the University of Calcutta in 1936,” the site notes.
“In 1940, she returned to the university as the founding head of the department of chemistry at Lady Brabourne College and in 1944, and she became only the second woman to be conferred a Doctorate of Science by an Indian university based on her research on the chemistry of plant products and synthetic organic chemistry. ”
5. Chatterjee Was Married to Another Scientist Who Encouraged Her Work
According to Ghosal, Chatterjee “married Professor Dr. Baradananda Chatterjee, FNA (since deceased), who was an authority in soil science.”
Chatterjee’s husband “became a Fellow of the Indian National Science Academy. They had a daughter, Julie Banerjee, their only child, who became a professor of organic chemistry at Calcutta University,” Professor De reports. He noted that the encouragement that Chatterjee received from her husband to pursue her scientific inquiries was unusual in India at that time.
According to the Hindustan Times, Asima Chatterjee “had one child, a daughter called Julie, with her husband Dr. Baradananda Chatterjee, and died in 2006 in her nursing home at the age of 90.”