Google has been on its game recently with its famous Google Doodles. Yesterday's autumnal equinox was a friendly animation welcoming in the new season. Today's Doodle, however, celebrates someone without whom a new season of chemistry might not be possible. Asima Chatterjee would be 100 years old today.
The organic chemistry-inspired Doodle is the perfect way to celebrate her passion for natural chemistry. Her likeness seems to be comprised of plants, a fitting tribute to a woman who redefined how plants could cure some of the world's deadliest diseases.
Here's exactly why the chemist deserves the shoutout.
Asima Chatterjee was born on September 23, 1917, in Bengal. She later moved to Calcutta at a young age in a still British-occupied India. She earned an undergraduate degree from Scottish Church College. Not stopping there, she earned her master's degree and a doctorate degree in chemistry. Both of those degrees came from the University of Calcutta; Chatterjee became the first woman to ever earn a doctorate in science from an Indian university in a STEM field.
She continued to passionately pursue chemistry. She joined Lady Brabourne College of Calcutta in 1940. She served as the college's founder and head of the chemistry department. The University of Calcutta appointed her to an honorary lecturer position in 1944. She joined the university's chemistry department officially in 1954.
Chatterjee died in November 2006.
She studied under some of the most famous instructors ever to come out of India. Most notably, she took courses under Satyendra Nath Bose, the Indian theoretical physicists. His early work on quantum mechanics laid the foundation for the Bose-Einstein condensate.
Her Legacy of Work
Chatterjee's biggest legacy remains the work she did, focusing on natural products chemistry and developing anti-malarial and chemotherapy drugs.
After a trip to the United States in 1947, she returned to India. If you search Asima Chatterjee in Google, you will notce that she was mainly focused on organic chemistry, in particular, vinca alkaloids as the Google Arts and Culture page noted. She researched medicinal plant properties which were then used for development of malaria and epilepsy drugs (such as Ayush-56). She also worked on developing drugs that would slow growth of cancer cells. Despite her fervor, however, Dr. Chatterjee encountered several obstacles -- even though women scientists weren't well received by India's scientific elite, that was the least of her problems.
SC Prakashi was one of Chatterjee's first Ph.D. students. He recalled how difficult it was for her to establish herself despite the financial barriers that compounded those brought forth by gender expectations.
"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," he said. "Institutions such as the Department of Science and Technology or Department of Biotechnology under the Government were yet to come and Council of Scientific & Industrial Research (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."
However, Chatterjee fought hard for her students' successes as well as constantly seeking out research that could help the world.
In 1960, Chatterjee became inducted as a Fellow of the National Institute of Sciences of India aka the Indian National Science Academy. She earned the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Award the following year for her work in natural product chemistry. She became the first female scientist elected as General President of the Indian Science Congress in 1975. That same year, she received one of the highest civilian awards called Padma Bhushan. The Bengal Chamber of Commerce recognized her as the Woman of the Year for her countless contributions to chemistry. Asima Chatterjee also published around 400 papers in various science and tech journals during her career.