Asima Chatterjee


[Ed note: A Google Doodle published in September 2017 featured a name familiar to us — the groundbreaking Indian scientist Asima Chatterjee — and prompted us to investigate her story a bit more. Today’s post is the first of two reflecting on Chatterjee’s work and her long friendship with Linus and Ava Helen Pauling.]

It is easy to lapse into cliche when discussing female scientists of the 20th century. On the one hand, it is certainly true that women of that era, by obtaining their Ph.Ds. and rising through the ranks of academia, paved new paths for those to come by pushing through environments that were often hostile to their presence. Beyond this however, it is also crucial to acknowledge the multifaceted contributions that these women made to their scientific disciplines and to celebrate the ways in which their work made a profound impact outside of the context of gender relations.

Asima Chatterjee, born in Kolkata (previously Calcutta) in 1917, is a terrific example of a pioneering woman scientist whose impact has been felt in many ways and on many levels. Chatterjee, a brilliant and passionate scholar, was the first woman to obtain a Doctorate of Science from an Indian university; just one in a succession of accomplishments. In so doing, she both smashed cultural expectations and demonstrated the ways in which sexism is detrimental to society as a whole.

The importance of a woman’s perspective – in particular, the capacity for empathy so often engendered by the roles, expectations and cultural norms traditionally assigned to women – is a quality that Linus Pauling revered. The strongest piece of evidence that one might put forth in support of this argument was the genuine respect and affection that characterized his long relationship with his wife, Ava Helen Pauling. By her husband’s own admission, Ava Helen was crucial in building and maintaining the compassion, selflessness, concern and, indeed, courage that were fundamental to Linus Pauling’s peace work, which was honored by the Nobel Peace Prize committee in 1963.

It is unsurprising then, that the friendship which flourished between Asima Chatterjee and the Paulings was steeped not only in mutual scientific interests, but also in a shared concern for social welfare. In fact, the two were not discrete nodes of their relationship: the desire for a more equitable and peaceful world was tethered to their mutual passion for science and, ultimately, became a central reference point in the constellation of their friendship.


The Paulings’ relationship with Asima Chatterjee likely found its start during Chatterjee’s stint as a fellow at the California Institute of Technology, though not in a typical way. In the years following the completion of her doctorate in 1944, Chatterjee and her one-year-old daughter, Julie, traveled abroad for a series of fixed-term research appointments, including a position at Caltech. While in Pasadena, Chatterjee studied carotenoids under Laszlo Zechmeister, a Hungarian scientist who had been hired by Pauling. Presumably because of his connection to Zechmeister, it seems clear that Pauling knew of Chatterjee’s visit, even though he was in England at the time, serving a year-long term at Oxford as Eastman Professor.

What is certain is that the Paulings’ and Chatterjee’s friendship was almost entirely facilitated through letters, dozens of them, penned over the course of nearly two decades. In their lengthy correspondence, Chatterjee and the Paulings touched upon a wide variety of topics ranging from professional favors to the shifting fortunes of India to the various exploits and undertakings of their children. Not until 1967, in Calcutta, did the correspondents finally meet face-to-face.

Chatterjee’s research focused primarily on natural products and phytochemistry, and placed prominent emphasis on the potential medicinal properties of the substances under study. Fascinated with botany early in childhood and, as a professional, inclined towards investigations in organic chemistry – the subject in which she received her doctorate – Chatterjee’s passions aligned in such a way as to enable in-depth studies of the structures and properties of plants native to India. One of Chatterjee’s especially prominent achievements emerged from her research on vinca alkaloids, used today for chemotherapeutic treatments. Chatterjee’s program of work made similarly important contributions to the attack on malaria and epilepsy.

However, despite her obvious promise as a scientist, Chatterjee’s research program was regularly hamstrung by funding problems. India achieved independence from the United Kingdom in 1947 (around the time of Chatterjee’s U.S. fellowship tour) and, as a recently sovereign nation, had a great deal to figure out both politically and economically. Working within this climate, Chatterjee routinely experienced difficulty in acquiring the basic resources and supplies necessary to conduct her research. This reality made her international connections, at Caltech in particular, a lifeline for the progress of her work.

One example of this somewhat unorthodox international collaboration was documented in a March 1953 letter. In it, Chatterjee asked Pauling to provide a degree of technical support with an alkaloid, Rauwolscine, that she would later become well-known for studying. In particular, Chatterjee needed Pauling’s assistance with a form of x-ray analysis that was not beyond her level of expertise, but instead was inaccessible to her for lack of technical infrastructure. While in this insistence Pauling decided against heeding Chatterjee’s request – citing various stipulations of institutional policy – other letters provide numerous examples where he and his colleagues were able to aid in her work.

Asima Chatterjee’s tenacious nature and focused dedication to her field were formally recognized by her peers in 1961, when she became the first woman to be awarded the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize. (An extremely prestigious honor for Indian scientists, this award has, to date, been bestowed to sixteen female recipients in total.) In next week’s post, we will examine the ways in which Chatterjee’s work, as well as her relationship with the Paulings, continued to flourish throughout the 1960s and beyond.



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