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ASIMA CHATTERJEE (1917-2006)


Asima Chatterjee was the first woman D.Sc (in chemistry) in 1944. She spent her whole life teaching chemistry at Calcutta University and inspiring generations of students to work in the field. She is known for her work on vinca alkaloids, now used in cancer drugs, and for the development of anti-convulsives and anti malarial drugs from plants.

She was born in a middle class family and encouraged to study at a young age. She was first class second in chemistry from Scottish Church College, then in 1938 she was awarded an M.Sc. from Calcutta University in chemistry. Two years later she became the founder-head of the department of chemistry at Lady Brabourne College, and in 1944 she obtained her D.Sc. from Calcutta University and was appointed honorary lecturer there.

In 1947 she went to the L.M. Parks University of Wisconsin to study naturally occurring glycosides with L. Zechmeister. She then moved to the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena to study carotenoids and provitamins. From 1949 to 1950 she was at the N.L. University of Zurich studying with Paul Karrer biologically active alkaloids, soon to be a lifelong interest. In 1950 she returned to India and began to do research on plant extracts, alkaloids and coumarins. Four years later she was appointed Reader at the Department of Pure Chemistry, Calcutta University, which remained her intellectual home for the rest of her life. The early years of research were very hard, as the stipends and research grants given to university professors were woefully inadequate for serious research. There were hardly any scholarships for research assistants and even these had to be supplemented with part time work.

In 1972 she was able to set up a Special Assistance Programme for the study of chemistry in her department under the University Grants Commission, and funds began to come her way for research. In 1985 this was upgraded to a Center of Advanced Studies on natural products. She set up a regional research laboratory on plant remedies and ayurveda in Salt Lake, Calcutta. She produced the anti-epileptic drug Ayush-56 from the plant Marsilea minuta, and anti-malarials from Alstonia scholaris (chhatim), Swertia chirata (chirata), Picrorhiza kurroa (kutki) and Caesalpinia crista. She published around 400 papers in prestigious journals and was extensively cited.

She received honorary D.Sc. degrees from Benaras Hindu University, and the universities of Burdwan, Kalyani and Vidyasagar. She also received a fellowship from Watumull University, USA in 1948 and from the International Science Academy in 1960. She was elected a Fellow of the Indian National Academy of Sciences in that year, received the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Award in 1961 and the C.V. Raman Award from the University Grants Commission in 1962. In that year she was elected to the Khaira Professorship of Chemistry, one of the most coveted chairs at the University, which she held till 1982. In 1974 she received the Prafulla Chandra Ray Award. She was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 1975, and that year became the first woman to be appointed general president of the Indian Science Congress. She was a member of the Rajya Sabha from 1982 to 1990.
 
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