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Asima Chatterjee (23 September 1917 – 22 November 2006) was an Indian organic chemist noted for her work in the fields of organic chemistry and phytomedicine.Her most notable work includes research on vinca alkaloids, the development of anti-epileptic drugs, and development of anti-malarial drugs. She also authored a considerable volume of work on medicinal plants of the Indian subcontinent. She was the first woman to receive a Doctorate of Science from an Indian university.

Asima Chatterjee (née Mookerjee) was born on 23 September 1917 in Bengal. She was the eldest of the two children of a medical doctor Indra Narayan Mukherjee and his wife, Kamala Devi.Chatterjee grew up in Calcutta in a middle-class family where she was encouraged to get an education. Her father was very interested in botany and Chatterjee shared in his interest.She graduated with honors in chemistry from the Scottish Church College of the University of Calcutta in 1936.

Asima Chatterjee received a master’s degree (1938) and a doctoral degree (1944) in organic chemistry from the University of Calcutta. She was the first Indian woman to earn a doctorate in science.Her doctoral research focused on the chemistry of plant products and synthetic organic chemistry.Among her notable instructors at the time were Prafulla Chandra Roy and Satyendra Nath Bose. Additionally, she had research experience from the University of Wisconsin, Madison and Caltech.

Chatterjee’s research concentrated on natural products chemistry and resulted in anti-convulsive, anti-malarial, and chemotherapy drugs.She spent around forty years researching various alkaloid compounds.She also discovered anti-epileptic activity in Marsilea minuta and anti-malarial activity in the plants Alstonia scholarisSwertia chirataPicrorhiza kurroa and Caesalpinia crista. These agents, however, have not been shown to be clinically competitive with the medications currently used for these conditions. Her work led to the development of an epilepsy drug called Ayush-56 and several anti-malarial drugs.

Chatterjee also wrote around 400 papers which were published in both national and international journals.

Chatterjee’s contributions to science include the following:

  • Initiated chemical investigation of alkaloids in Rauwolfia canescens.
  • Investigated the chemistry of almost all principal types of indole alkaloids.
  • Contributions to the elucidation of the structure and stereochemistry of ajmalicine and sarpagine.
  • First suggested stereo-configuration of sarpagine.
  • Isolated and characterised geissoschizine, a key precursor in biogenesis of indole alkaloids from Rhazya stricta.
  • Carried out synthetic studies on a number of complex indole, quinoline and isoquinoline alkaloids.
  • Developed procedures for the preparation of beta-phenylethanolamines in connection with alkaloid synthesis.
  • Elucidated the structure of luvangetin isolated from Luvanga scandens.
  • Studied the action of various Lewis acids on prenylated coumarins and devised simple synthetic routes to a number of complex coumarin systems.
  • Investigated the mechanism of acid-catalysed hydramine fission of beta phenylethanol amines.
  • Introduced the use of periodic acid as a reagent for the detection and location of both terminal and exocyclic double bonds in organic compounds.

Awards and recognition

  • She was a Premchand Roychand Scholar of the University of Calcutta.
  • From 1962 to 1982, she was the Khaira Professor of Chemistry, one of the most prestigious and coveted chairs of the University of Calcutta.
  • In 1972, she was appointed as the Honorary Coordinator of the Special Assistance Programme to intensify teaching and research in natural product chemistry, sanctioned by the Indian University Grants Commission.
  • In 1960, she was elected a Fellow of the Indian National Science Academy, New Delhi.
  • In 1961, she received the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Award in chemical science, becoming the first female recipient of this award.
  • In 1975, she was conferred the prestigious Padma Bhushan and became the first female scientist to be elected as the General President of the Indian Science Congress Association .
  • She was conferred the D. Sc. (honoris causa) degree by several universities.
  • She was nominated by the President of India as a Member of the Rajya Sabha from February 1982 to May 1990.
  • On 23 September 2017, the search engine Google deployed a 24-hour Google Doodle in honour of the 100th anniversary of Chatterjee’s birth.