Asima Chatterjee showed early promise obtaining her M.Sc.
degree from Calcutta University in 1938, with organic
chemistry as the special paper and D.Sc. degree in 1944
from the same university under the guidance of P. K. Bose, the
pioneer natural product chemist in India. She was the first woman
to be awarded the D.Sc. of any Indian university.
In 1940, Chatterjee joined Lady Brabourne College,
Calcutta, as the Founder – Head of the Chemistry Department.
In 1944, she was appointed as an Honorary Lecturer in Chemistry,
She worked with L.M. Parks University of Wisconsin, USA
(1947) on naturally occurring glycosides, with L. Zechmeister,
California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, USA (1948–49) on
Carotinoids and provitamins and with Paul Karrer, N.L. University
of Zurich (1949–50) on biologically active alkaloids, which
became her life-long interest ever since. After her return to India
in 1950, she vigorously pursued investigations on the chemistry
of Indian medicinal plants, particularly alkaloids and coumarins.
In 1954, Chatterjee was appointed Reader in the Department
of Pure Chemistry, Calcutta University, which became her
permanent address almost till her death. In 1962, she became the
10 Khaira Professor of Chemistry, one of the most prestigious and
coveted Chairs of the Calcutta University which she adorned till
1982 and was the first woman scientist to adorn a chair of any
University in India. She continued as the Honorary Coordinator
of the Special Assistance Programme to intensify teaching and research
in natural product chemistry, sanctioned by the University
Grants Commission in 1972 and later recognized as the Centre of
Advanced Studies on Natural Products in 1985.
Through her untiring efforts, Chatterjee could fulfill her
life-long dream to establish a Regional Research Institute for carrying
out research on Indian medicinal plants for the development
of Ayurvedic drugs along with an Ayurvedic Hospital for
systematic clinical trials through a unique Centre-State collaboration,
under the aegis of the Central Council for Research in
Ayurveda and Siddha in Salt Lake City, Kolkata. As the Honorary
Principal Co-ordinator, she nurtured this Institute till the end of
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
She made significant contributions in the field of medicinal
chemistry with special reference to alkaloids, coumarins and
terpenoids, analytical chemistry, and mechanistic organic chemistry.
She 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.
Chatterjee edited and revised the six-volume Bharatiya
Banoushodhi published by the Calcutta University and was also
the Chief-Editor of the six-volume series, The Treatise of Indian
Medicinal Plants published by CSIR.
She was elected a Fellow of the Indian National Science
Academy (INSA), New Delhi (1960), received the Shanti Swarup
Bhatnagar Award (1961) and was conferred Padma Bhushan (1975)
amongst other awards. She was elected as the General President of
the Indian Science Congress Association (1975) the first woman
scientist to be so elected, and was nominated by the President of
India as a Member of the Rajya Sabha which she served with distinction
from February 1982 till May 1990.
She probably imbibed interest in the medicinal plants from
her father, Dr. Indra Narayan Mukherjee, a medical man cum amateur
botanist. During her post-graduate studies, she came in contact
with eminent teachers and educationists such as, Acharya P.
C. Ray, P. C. Mitter. P. Ray, P. B. Sarker, J. N. Mukherjee, P. K.
Bose and J. C. Bardhan all of whom influenced her future career.
Being one of her early Ph.D. students I have closely witnessed
her initial struggles to establish herself. Those were trying
days for research, particularly in the most ill-equipped university
laboratories with inadequate chemicals and meager financial assistance.
DST, DBT were yet to come and CSIR was in the formative
stage. Research guides had often to pay not only for chemicals,
apparatus, etc., but also the charges of even elementary and
almost all spectral analyses to be had from abroad. Scholarships
were few and barely enough; most of the students had to work
part time or without any scholarship just for the love of work and
pay all the necessary cost of thesis submission including printing,
examination fee and even the postal charges for dispatching the
thesis to the foreign examiner(s) which was compulsory, with hardly
any job prospect for research as a profession.
Before I joined her, she had a grant of Rs 300/- p.a. and
three college teachers as part time research students. I was the sole
fulltime scholar with laboratory grant of Rs. 1000/- p.a. only with
a princely W. B. Govt. stipend of Rs.150/- p.m. For milling plant
materials we had to go to the far away workshop of the Jadavpur
University and even for UV measurement, we had to go to adjacent
Bose Institute where only she was allowed to handle the equipment.
We borrowed solvents for plant material extraction mostly
from the comparatively well off B.C. Guha’s laboratory as the research
grant of even the Heads of Departments used to be only
During those hard days, she received encouragement from
Profs. Satyen Bose, Meghnath Saha, S. K. Mitra , B. C. Guha and
12 Sir J. C. Ghosh and other Vice-Chancellors of Calcutta University.
Her husband, Professor Baradananda Chatterjee, a renowned Physical
Chemist himself and the Vice-Principal of the then Bengal
Engineering College (now a Deemed University), Sibpur, Howrah,
solidly stood by her. She in turn could inspire and keep the morale
of her students by her own example. Nevertheless, she was a very
hard task master, never satisfied with performance and would never
compromise with the standard of work. “I wish to work as long as
I live”, her philosophy and work culture that she followed in letter
Asima Chatterjee showed early promise obtaining her M.Sc.