Dr SS Bhatnagar: The Right Chemistry

Dr SS Bhatnagar: The Right Chemistry

There’s something inherently lonely about a child making his own toys. Not this schoolboy, though. While his classmates were kicking up a storm on the playground, this young boy was using the instruments and tools of his grandfather, an engineer, to build mechanical toys.

It was this same genius, and a bit of serendipity, that propelled Dr Shanti Swaroop Bhatnagar to make history. This was the early 1900s when the science in India was coming into its own. While C V Raman was being conferred the Noble Prize for Physics in 1930, other scientists like Homi Bhabha, S N Bose and Vikram Sarabhai were also making remarkable innovations in their respective fields.

But if high-profile areas of research like physics, nuclear science and astronomy were cornering the spotlight, applied chemistry too would find its place in the sun, thanks to Dr Bhatnagar. In the early 20th century, after World War I (1914-1918), India saw a rise in its industrial growth. Indian goods were in great demand in Britain as production there had been compromised by the war. This boosted industrial research and development in India and set the stage for a scientist like Dr Bhatnagar to flourish.

It wasn’t long before this young scientist was solving all sorts of practical problems for industrialists and agriculturalists in the Indian subcontinent.

Between 1924 and 1940, Dr Bhatnagar was working as a Professor of Physical Chemistry at Panjab University and Director of the university’s chemical laboratories in Lahore.

During this time, he resolved the first big challenge he faced – he developed a process to convert bagasse (sugarcane peelings) into food cake for cattle. It was a problem presented by engineer and agriculturist, Rai Bahadur Sir Ganga Ram of Lahore, also known as the ‘Father of Modern Lahore’, and it earned him a good deal of attention.

Dr Bhatnagar’s industrial applications extended to companies like Delhi Cloth Mills; J K Mills, Kanpur; Ganesh Flour Mills, Lyallpur (now in Pakistan); and Tata Oil Mills, Bombay, but it was while pondering a problem faced by Steel Brothers & Co Ltd, London, that he gained much recognition. He used Indian gum to overcome a challenge faced by the company’s Rawalpindi-based subsidiary, which was having trouble drilling for crude oil.

The company was so pleased that they offered him Rs 1.5 lakh. Dr Bhatnagar was not interested in personal gain; instead, he used the money for petroleum research at the university. This marked an important milestone in petroleum research in India.

Dr Bhatnagar’s career is marked by his years as a college professor and researcher, his work in applied chemistry, and as an institution-builder. He established as many as 12 research laboratories in India till 1954, and was the founder-director of the Council of Scientific & Industrial Research (CSIR), one of the largest research and development organisations in India today.

Council of Scientific & Industrial Research (CSIR) Logo | CSIR

Young Genius

Dr Bhatnagar’s childhood paved the way for everything he was to achieve in life. He was born on 21st February 1894, in Bhera, in Shahpur district of Punjab, now in Pakistan. His father, a graduate of Punjab University and the headmaster of a high school, passed away when he was just eight months old. So his maternal grandfather Munshi Pyare Lal took the family under his wing.

Pyare Lal was an engineer and one of the first to graduate from the Roorkee Engineering College (now IIT-Roorkee). While geometry and algebra also fascinated the boy, his childhood interests weren’t limited to science. He had a talent for Urdu poetry, something he probably inherited from his mother’s family, which had produced a number of poets.

After elementary school, Dr Bhatnagar started schooling at Dyal Singh High School in Lahore. While still in school, he involved himself in science experiments, mostly relating to projects in the electrical field. He published his first ‘paper’ on how to make carbon electrodes for batteries in 1911, in the Allahabad newspaper, The Leader.

Government Dyal Singh College, Lahore  | Wikimedia Commons

In 1942, Dr Bhatnagar returned to the same subject when there was a shortage of imports needed to make electrodes of batteries due to World War II, and he employed Indian materials for the process.

Next, he received a university scholarship, which saw him enrol at Dyal Singh College, Lahore, in 1911. He went on to the Forman Christian College in Lahore, where he obtained a BSc degree in 1916. Oddly, a year earlier, when he took the BSc examination, he failed in the subject his name is now most famously associated with – chemistry. Turns out his answers had not been culled from the textbooks his teacher referred to but were based on books he had read on the subject! However, he was awarded a BSc degree with honours in physics. Dr Bhatnagar also acquired an MSc degree in chemistry in 1919.

Dr Bhatnagar received a scholarship from Dyal Singh College to study overseas and he wanted to pursue his studies in the US. He reached London en route to America but was held up there because all the ships sailing from England to the US were carrying American soldiers who were returning home after World War I. He enrolled with University College London instead and obtained a Doctor of Science degree in Chemistry from the institution in 1921.

Dr Shanti Swaroop Bhatnagar  | ssbprize.gov.in/Content/SSBBio

Most Prolific Years

After returning to India in 1921, Dr Bhatnagar took up a professorship at the then newly established Benaras Hindu University. In 1924, he took up a job as Professor of Physical Chemistry at Panjab University in Lahore and as director of the university’s chemical laboratories. He stayed there till 1940. The 16 years he spent at the university was the most significant phase of his life for original scientific work.

The Second World War (1939-1945) interrupted Indian exports and imports, and there were no research organisations for the development of natural resources and new industries at the time. The time was thus ripe for Dr Bhatnagar to build scientific infrastructure for the country. He worked on innovations for the British Army and Indian troops, including the creation of anti-gas cloth and developed plastic from waste. He also found a way to use petroleum extraction byproducts in the oil industry.

Punjab University, Lahore | Khalid Mahmood, Wikimedia Commons 

Another of his remarkable contributions to science was the Bhatnagar-Mathur Magnetic Interference Balance. This balance was one of the most important and sensitive instruments, used to measure magnetic properties, which he developed with his friend and scientist K N Mathur. He is also widely known for his study of colloids and solutions.

In December 1939, Dewan Bahadur Sir Arcot Ramaswami Mudaliar, who was a member of the Department of Commerce in the then Viceroy’s executive committee, was greatly impressed by Dr Bhatnagar’s work when he visited his laboratory in Lahore. He then advised that Dr Bhatnagar be appointed to head the government’s war-time science effort. With Mudaliar’s persistent efforts, the Board of Scientific and Industrial Research (BSIR) was created on April 1, 1940, for a period of two years, with Dr Bhatnagar in charge.

Dr Bhatnagar was designated as Director, Scientific and Industrial Research, and Mudaliar became BSIR’s first Chairman. Both Mudaliar and Dr Bhatnagar’s efforts to further the development and funding of industrial research led to the formation of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), which started operations on 28th September 1942 with Dr Bhatnagar as its Founding Director.

An Institution-Builder

Post-independence, Dr Bhatnagar held a number of government posts and was instrumental in setting up important institutions in India. In 1948 and 1949, he served as Secretary in the Ministry of Education and was Educational Advisor to the Government of India. He became the first Secretary in the Ministry of Natural Resources and Scientific Research, which was set up in 1951. He was also Secretary in the Atomic Energy Commission and later became the first Chairman of the University Grants Commission.

Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru with Dr Bhatnagar at National Chemical Laboratory, Pune, 1950 | Wikimedia Commons

Dr Bhatnagar was lauded with honours for his work. In 1936, the British Government conferred on him the Order of the British Empire for his contribution to chemical sciences. In 1941, he was made Knight Bachelor. In 1943, he was elected as a fellow of the Royal Society of London. In 1954, the Government of India conferred on him the Padma Vibhushan.

Besides being an exceptionally brilliant scientist, Dr Bhatnagar was also a great polymath. He wrote Urdu poetry under the pen name ‘Seemab’, which means ‘mercury’. He composed the kulgeet or anthem of the Benaras Hindu University, in Sanskrit, which is its anthem to this day. His eloquence in Urdu grammar and poetry was such that his teachers had considered it unnecessary for him to attend these classes!

Benaras Hindu University | bhu.ac.in

While in college, he wrote a one-act play in Urdu, called Karamati, which was translated in English and won him the Best Play award in 1912 under the Saraswati Stage Society of his college. He married Lajwanti in 1915, daughter of his headmaster at Dyal Singh School. After she passed away in 1946, Dr Bhatnagar wrote a number of Urdu poems in her memory and they are a part of an eponymous collection.

If chemistry was his passion, poetry was his retreat,” says Rajesh Kocchar, Director of National Institute of Science, Technology and Development Studies, New Delhi, in his essay on the scientist, published in Indian Academy of Sciences’ Resonance- Journal of Science Education. He goes on to say that even when on vacation, Dr Bhatnagar would compose verses on scraps of paper and pocket them. His wife shared his poetic interest.

Today, in his honour, the prestigious Shanti Swaroop Bhatnagar Award is given to individuals by CSIR for their contribution to science and technology. Dr Shanti Swaroop Bhatnagar will always be remembered for laying the foundations of scientific and industrial research in pre- as well as post-independence India. His legacy cannot be quantified.

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