Asima Chatterjee 100th birthday: Who was India's first female scientist to be awarded a PhD?

From Fiona Keating, published at Sat Sep 23 2017

Asima Chatterjee was born on 23 September 1917 in Calcutta and she is highly regarded in India for her pioneering work in medicinal chemistry.

Growing up in Calcutta during the 1930s, it was unusual for a woman to be involved in higher education, let alone in the sciences.

Despite resistance, Chatterjee completed her undergraduate degree in organic chemistry and went on to win many honours including India’s most prestigious science award in 1961, the annual Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize for her achievements in phytomedicine. It would be another 14 years before another woman would be awarded it again.

According to the Indian Academy of Sciences, Chatterjee “successfully developed anti-epileptic drug, Ayush-56 from Marsilia minuta and the anti-malarial drug from Alstonia scholaris, Swrrtia chirata, Picrorphiza kurroa and Ceasalpinna crista.”

Her work has contributed immensely to the development of drugs that treat epilepsy and malaria.

A prodigious writer, she published around 400 papers in national and international journals as well as many review articles.

She was elected as the General President of the Indian Science Congress Association in 1975 – in fact, she was the first woman scientist to be elected to the organisation.

The scientist exhibited an early interest in medicinal plants, following in the footsteps of her father, Dr Indra Nayan Mukherjee, who was an ardent amateur botanist. Dr Chatterjee was particularly interested in the medicinal properties of plants indigenous to India.

An outstanding contribution was her work on vinca alkaloids, which come from the Madagascar periwinkle plant. They are used in chemotherapy to assist in slowing down and halting cancer cells duplicating.

One of her students, SC Pakrashi said: “I have closely witnessed her initial struggles to establish herself. Those were trying times for research.” One of the issues Chatterjee had to deal with were inadequately equipped university laboratories, with sparse funds.

He added: “She was a very hard task master, never satisfied with performance and would never compromise with the standard of work.

Her philosophy in life was imbibed with a strong work ethic. “I wish to work as long as I live,” she said.

She died on 22 November 2006.