Asima Chatterjee – Pioneer of Her Time

Asima Chatterjee – Pioneer of Her Time

Author: Vera KoesterORCID iD

Asima Chatterjee was one of India’s most famous female chemists and a role model for many women. She was the first woman to receive a Ph.D. in science from an Indian university and to be elected General President of the Indian Science Congress, a leading institution that oversees scientific research.

 

Organic Chemist Interested in (Vinca) Alkaloids, Terpenoids, Coumarins

Asima Chatterjee was known for her work in the field of organic chemistry and phytomedicine, especially in the areas of (vinca) alkaloids, terpenoids, and coumarins, and she published a lot on medicinal plants of the Indian subcontinent.

Among many other things, she studied the chemistry of almost all major types of indole alkaloids and developed a simplified synthesis of the required β-phenylethanolamines as part of the alkaloid synthesis. She investigated the effect of various Lewis acids on prenylated coumarins which resulted in a better understanding of their structural relationships. She developed simple synthetic routes for several complex coumarin systems, isolated many coumarins of biogenetic interest, and elucidated the structure of luvangetin that she isolated from Luvanga scandens. She introduced the use of periodic acid, the highest oxoacid of iodine, as a reagent for the detection and localization of terminal and exocyclic double bonds in organic compounds and was the first to show that this method was a good alternative to ozonolysis.

In addition to her interest in basic research, she placed great emphasis on the investigation of the medical properties of indigenous plants, especially vinca alkaloids. These are a set of anti-mitotic and anti-microtubule alkaloid agents originally derived from the Madagascar periwinkle plant Catharanthus roseus (pictured) and other vinca plants. Vinca alkaloids interfere with microtubules, cell structures that help move chromosomes during mitosis, and are used to treat cancer.

Chatterjee developed also the Ayurvedic antiepileptic drug “Ayush-56” from Marsilea minuta (water fern) and Nardostachys jatamansi [6] and the Ayurvedic antimalarial drug “Ayush 64” from Alstonia scholaris, Swrrtia chirata, Picrorphiza kurroa, and Ceasalpinna crista [7]. Her patented medicines are being commercialized by several companies. She established the Regional Research Institute (Ay.), Calcutta, in 1971, now called the National Research Institute of Ayurvedic Drug Development (NRIADD), which includes an Ayurvedic hospital and centers for research in chemistry, botany and pharmacology of drugs isolated from Indian medicinal plants.

 
When she started and established her independent research, she was not only the first woman, but, overall, these were difficult times for research. University laboratories were poorly equipped, and there were hardly any chemicals and very little financial support. Research leaders often had to pay out of pocket for chemicals, equipment, and analyses conducted abroad. Contributing to her success were hard work, an unquenched thirst for knowledge, and a willingness to constantly learn. A true “karma yogi,” she is said to have fulfilled her duties and responsibilities without striving for rewards.

 

Career Path

Asima Chatterji (nee Mookerjee) was born in Calcutta, India, on September 23, 1917. Her father was a doctor interested in botany and very supportive of his children’s education, which was rare at the time. Asima studied chemistry at the Scottish Church College of the University of Calcutta and received her Ph.D. there in 1944. During her Ph.D., she worked with Prafulla Chandra Ray (known as the father of chemical science in India) and the physicist Satyendra Nath Bose on the chemistry of plant products and synthetic organic chemistry.

In 1940, she became the Founding Head of the Department of Chemistry at Lady Brabourne College, University of Colcotta, and an Honorary Lecturer in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Calcutta. In 1947, she went to the United States to do research on biologically active alkaloids, working with L. M. Parks, University of Wisconsin, and then with Lásló Zechmeister, California Institute of Technology (Caltech), Pasadena. From 1949 to 1950, she worked with Paul Karrer, University of Zurich, Switzerland, on biologically active indole alkaloids.

In 1950, she returned to India and resumed her services at Lady Brabourne College and the University of Calcutta. In 1954, she became Reader in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Calcutta. From 1962 to 1982, she was the Khaira Professor of Chemistry at the same university. After her retirement she continued to work, for example, she served as Honorary Programme-Coordinator for the University Grant Commission Natural Product Chemistry special assistant program from 1972 to 2003.

Among many other awards, Asima Chatterji was honored by the Government of India with the “Padma Bhushan” (India’s third highest award; she was the first female awardee) in 1975 and with the Ashutosh Mukherjee Gold Medal in 1989. In 1960, she was as the first female scientist elected a Fellow of the Indian National Science Academy (now Indian National Science Academy) in New Delhi.

 

Family Life

In 1945, she married Baradananda Chatterjee, a physical chemist, with whom she had a daughter who also became a chemist. It is said that the members of Asima Chatterji’s laboratory were like one big family, which included her husband. In 1967, Asima Chatterji lost her father and husband within four months and then suffered a severe heart attack. It took her almost three months to recover. Her students and colleagues had a great influence on her recovery.

She instituted the Baradananda Memorial Lectureship at Bengal Engineering College, Howrah, India, which is delivered each year by a leading chemist of India who has made a significant contribution in the field of soil chemistry or corrosion.

Asima Chatterji died on November 22, 2006. She was committed to science education and policy until the very end.

Asima Chatterji is the answer to Guess the Chemist (128).

 

References

[1] Asima Chatterjee (23 September 1917 – 24 November 2006), Biog. Mem. Fell. INSA, N. Delhi 2007, 32, 179–215.

[2] Indian Academy of Sciences, Women Scientists of India: Dr. Asima Chatterjee (accessed July 15, 2022)
 
[3] Karthika S Nair, WOMEN’S HISTORY MONTH: Asima Chatterjee, Beyond pink world March 14, 2020. (accessed July 15, 2022)

[4] Swati Basak, Women, Science, Education and Empowerment: Asima Chatterjee, The Genius Lady, Impact: International Journal of Research in Humanities, Arts and Literature 2015, 3(5), 133–138.

[5] Kiona N. Smith, Today’s Google Doodle Honors Chemist Asima Chatterjee, Forbes September 23, 2017. (accessed July 15, 2022)

[6] Indian Patent No. 141170 dt. July 14, 1976.

[7] Indian Patent No. 568/Del.70, August 7, 1979.

 

Selected Publications

 

 

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