Over the last few decades, Indian women have done extremely well in the field of science, technology and research. However, during the pre-independence era, these fields were male-dominated and it was rare for women to take an interest or even pursue a career in the field of science. But, one such woman who broke all these societal stereotypes and went on to become a noted Indian Chemist was Asima Chatterjee.
Asima Chatterjee was born on September 23, 1917, in Calcutta. Her Father Indra Narayan Murthy was a doctor and was extremely supportive of Asima’s education at a time when girls were married off as soon as they stepped into adolescence. Asima’s father loved botany and this was where she developed her interest in medicine. She was an excellent student who completed her schooling in Calcutta and subsequently enrolled at Scottish Church College, University of Calcutta, and graduated with honours in chemistry in the year 1936. She went on to obtain a master’s degree in organic chemistry from the University of Calcutta, further completing a doctoral degree there in 1944. Her doctoral research focused on the chemistry of plant products and synthetic organic chemistry. During these days, she worked along with renowned chemists, Prafulla Chandra Ray and the famous physicist Satyendra Nath Bose. Additionally, she had research experience from the University of Wisconsin, Madison and Caltech and became the first Indian woman to earn a Doctorate in Science.
Asima Chatterjee dedicated most of her life to research. During this period of time, she came across a number of difficulties such as not being able to gather sufficient funds for her research work. However, she did not let these difficulties become setbacks, rather considered them her stepping stones towards a better tomorrow. Her most notable work in the field of chemistry includes her research on vinca development of antiepileptic and anti-malarial drugs. She dedicated 40 years of her time to research on cancer and anticancer growth drugs and studied a group of compounds called ‘alkaloids’ which even today are used in chemotherapy for cancer patients.
During her course of life, her groundbreaking work was widely recognized and she was conferred with several prestigious awards. In 1961 she became the first female recipient of the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar award, in 1975 she was honoured with India’s highest award, Padma Bhushan and became the first female to be elected as the General President of the Indian Science Congress Association.
Her famous words were “I wish to work as long as I live”. Let us all continue to work with the same enthusiasm and zeal as that of Dr Asima Chatterjee strived toward a common goal of creating many more opportunities for young girls and women in the field of science, technology and research.