Prafulla Chandra Ray Biography

Prafulla Chandra Ray: Father of Indian Chemical Science

Acharya Prafulla Chandra Ray (1861 – 1944), regarded as the Father of Indian Chemical Science was an eminent Bengali chemist, educationist, historian, industrialist and philanthropist. He established the first modern Indian research school in chemistry.

The Royal Society of Chemistry honoured his life and work with the first-ever Chemical Landmark Plaque outside Europe. He was also the founder of India’s first pharmaceutical company, Bengal Chemicals & Pharmaceuticals.

Prafulla used to repeat the Sanskrit saying…

'A man may desire victory always but he should welcome defeat at the hands of his own disciples'. Click To Tweet
Bust of Prafulla Chandra Ray, Kolkata, India
Sculpture of Prafulla Chandra Ray, Kolkata, India [Source]

So, let us look at the biography of Prafulla Chandra Ray

Early Life and Education

Prafulla Chandra Ray was born on 2nd August 1861 in the village of Raruli-Katipara, which was then situated in the eastern portion of Bengal Presidency of British India (now in Bangladesh).

His father, Harish Chandra Ray was a landlord with liberal views and his mother, Bhubanmohini Devi was a well-educated woman in the village.


In 1866, Prafulla began his education in the village school run by his father and studied there until he was nine.

After that, around 1870 or 1871, His father decided to move his family to Calcutta(Kolkata), where centres of higher learning were more easily accessible. Prafulla was admitted to the Hare school.

In 1874, when Prafulla was in the fourth standard, he suffered a severe attack of dysentery and was consequently forced to postpone his studies. He then has to return to his ancestral home.

He considered his disruption in his study as a blessing in disguise as it allowed him to read more widely in his father’s well-equipped library.

After two years, in 1876, when Prafulla was recovered from his illness, he returned to Kolkata and was admitted to Albert School. In 1878, after passing the school’s entrance examination with a First Division, he was admitted to Metropolitan Institution (now, Vidyasagar College).

He also studied physics and chemistry at the Presidency College, where chemistry became his favourite subject. His passion for chemistry and experimentation led him to set up a chemistry laboratory at his home.

Prafulla Chandra Ray won a scholarship to the University of Edinburgh, the United Kingdom in 1882 and began his study in chemistry. After receiving B.Sc. degree in 1885, Prafulla remained at Edinburgh University to undertake research, he was awarded a D.Sc. degree in 1887.

Prafulla was awarded the Hope Prize for his thesis on “Conjugated Sulphates of the Copper-magnesium Group: A Study of Isomorphous Mixtures and Molecular Combinations”. Which allowed him to work on his research for a further period of one year after his completion of the doctorate.

Scientific Research

Prafulla Chandra Ray returned to Calcutta in 1888. Then, he became an assistant professor of chemistry at the Presidency College in Calcutta in 1889.

Ray was the teacher to many pioneers of Indian science including the likes of Meghnad Saha and Satyendranath Bose, Jnanendra Nath Mukherjee, Jnan Chandra Ghosh.

Prafulla Chandra Ray 1961 stamp of India
Prafulla Chandra Ray 1961 stamp of India [Source]

Coming to his notable contributions…

Mercurous Nitrite

Around 1895, Prafulla Chandra Ray started his work in the field of discovering nitrite chemistry which turned out to be extremely effective. In 1896, he published a paper on preparation of a new stable chemical compound: Mercurous Nitrite. He noticed the formation of a yellow crystalline solid with the reaction of mercury and dilute nitric acid.

6 Hg + 8 HNO3 → 3 Hg2(NO3)2 + 2 NO + 4 H2O

This work made way for a large number of investigative papers on nitrites and hyponitrites of different metals, and on nitrites of ammonia and organic amines.

This result was first published in the Journal of Asiatic Society of Bengal. Nature magazine immediately noticed this on May 28, 1896.

Ammonium and Alkylammonium Nitrites

One of Prafulla Chandra Ray’s notable contributions is in Ammonium Nitrite synthesis. He proved that the pure ammonium nitrite is indeed stable by bringing to pass a lot of experiments and explained then it can be sublimed even at 60 °C without decomposition.

NH4Cl + AgNO2 → NH4NO2 + AgCl

At a conference of the Chemical Society in London, he submitted the result. Nobel laureate William Ramsay congratulated him for his achievement.

He prepared a lot of such compounds by double displacement. After that, he worked on mercury alkyl and mercury alkyl aryl-ammonium nitrites.

RNH3Cl + AgNO2 → RNH3NO2 + AgCl


In 1892, Prafulla established Bengal Chemical Works. Initially, the company was producing herbal products and indigenous medicines.

In 1902, the enterprise became a limited company, Bengal Chemical and Pharmaceuticals Works Ltd. which was India’s first pharmaceutical company.

The company flourished under his management and gradually it expanded and became a leading chemical and medical producer.

Books and Interests

Prafulla was from the beginning interested in the work of the early Hindu chemists. After reading the famous book “Greek Alchemy” by the French scientist Berthelot, his interest in Hindu Chemistry grew into a passion.

Prafulla’s interest in the ancient text led him to read many ancient books in Sanskrit, Pali, Bengali and other languages.

After several years of study, Prafulla published his famous book, “The History of Hindu Chemistry” in two volumes in 1902 and 1908. These books received great praise from scientists all over the world. The book explained the extensive knowledge of metallurgy and chemistry in ancient India.

Prafulla published the first volume of his autobiography “Life and Experience of a Bengali Chemist” in 1932 which was dedicated to youth of India. The second volume of this work was published in 1935.

Social Services

After the retirement of Prafulla from Presidency College in 1916, he joined Calcutta University and worked for more than 20 years. Prafulla was a passionate and devoted social worker, he wanted to uplift the masses through the miracle of science.

He participated actively in the early 1920s Bengal famine and helped the flood stuck people.

Prafulla Chandra Ray organised Bengal Relief Committee. This committee collected nearly 2.5 million rupees in cash and kind and distributed it in the affected area.

In 1921, he donated, in advance, all his salary for the rest of his service in the University to the development of the Department of Chemistry and to the creation of two research fellowships. He donated money regularly toward many welfare programs.

Prafulla donated money to establish Nagarjuna Prize to be awarded for the best work in chemistry and Ashutosh Mukherjee Award to be awarded as the best research prize in Biology.


Prafulla Chandra Ray was a true nationalist. He was always against any irrational social system. Prafulla was very affectionate towards his students. Prafulla was the President of the National Council of Education.

He promoted the Khadi material. He also established many other industries such as Bengal Enamel Works, National Tannery Works and the Calcutta Pottery Works.

Prafulla believed that it was not enough for students to acquire degrees like Bachelor of Science or Master of Science; they should endeavour to acquire real knowledge.

In his opinion, to take degrees just to get government jobs was a waste. The students should rather get technical education and start their own business. Young men should enter trade and industries by themselves.

Acharya Prafulla Chandra Ray passed away on the 16th of June 1944 at the age of 83.

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