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India’s first Science Association set up by Mahendralal Sarkar in 19th century

2 November, 2021 11:28:01
India’s first Science Association set up by Mahendralal Sarkar in 19th century

He was the second MD graduate from the Calcutta Medical College during British rule --- a brilliant student and doctor, Mahendralal Sarkar (1833 –1904) realized the need for a forum to exchange scientific knowledge in India. He was definitely farsighted and had a vision. But though the whole of India knows of Indian Association for Cultivation of Science, hardly any are aware that there was this doctor from Kolkata who went on to establish this association that still does exemplary work. 

The logo

A propagator of scientific studies in 19th century India by an Indian was something rare. Rather it was the British who were bringing in Western science to the Land of the Vedas. Born at Paikpara village of Howrah, Mahendralal Sarkar lost both his parents early in life, his father when he was five years old and his mother when he was nine years old. His mother had shifted to his maternal uncles’ house earlier, and subsequently he was brought up by his maternal uncles, Iswar Chandra Ghosh and Mahesh Chandra Ghosh in their house at Nebutala in Calcutta. He secured admission in the Hare School as a free student in 1840. In 1849, he passed the junior scholarship examination and joined Hindu College, where he studied up to 1854. At that time, Hindu College did not have facilities for teaching science and as he was bent upon studying medicine, he joined Calcutta Medical College. 

At Calcutta Medical College he was so esteemed by his professors that in the second year of his course he was invited by them to deliver a series of lectures on optics to his fellow students, a task he performed honourably. He had a brilliant career at that college, where, besides winning several scholarships, he passed the final examination in 1860 with the highest honours in medicine and surgery. In 1863, he took the degree of M.D. with special success. 
Although educated in the traditional European system of medicine, Mahendralal Sarkar turned to homeopathy. He was influenced by reading William Morgan’s The Philosophy of Homeopathy, and by interaction with Rajendralal Dutt, a leading homoeopathic practitioner of Calcutta. In a meeting of the Bengal branch of the British Medical Association, he proclaimed homoeopathy to be superior to the Western Medicine and was thus ostracized by the British doctors, and had to undergo loss in practice for some time. However, soon he regained his practice and went on to become a leading homoeopathic practitioner in Calcutta, as well as India. 

In the course of his career, he treated several notable persons of those days, including author Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay and Ramakrishna Paramhansa. Since 1867 he started a campaign for a National Science Association as he felt India needed its own scientific knowhow away from the British supremacy and thus planned for an association that would be funded, run, and managed by native Indians, with the aim of turning out a pool of scientists for national reconstruction.

The campus

Thus was born the Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science in 1876 and Sarkar was its first secretary. It had basic science departments such as Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics, Physiology, Geology, Botany, etc. and notable Indian scientists participated in the association. Regular lectures and demonstrations were arranged for the public to popularize science. Sarkar supported women’s education too in nineteenth-century India, when higher education among women was rare. He supported Abala Bose’s decision to pursue the study of medicine at Madras Medical College instead of Calcutta Medical College, where admission of females was not permitted. 

IACS still holds on to his legacy and is a frontrunner in propagating scientific knowledge. 

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