Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar, one of the doyens of modern Indian science, was destined for greatness. The pioneering scientist led the charge in establishing the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in September 1942, of which he became its first Director General.
Today CSIR runs 38 laboratories across India.
Born on February 21, 1894, Bhatnagar was just eight months old when his father passed away.
Raised by his maternal grandfather, an engineer working in railway construction, Bhatnagar inherited a real passion for engineering and science. From an early age, he played around with his grandfather’s instruments, worked out Euclid’s geometry, algebra and even constructed his own mechanical toys. Besides science, Bhatnagar also developed a real taste for both Urdu and Hindi poetry.
After finishing elementary school from Dayanand Anglo-Vedic High School in Sikandrabad, Uttar Pradesh, he enrolled into Lahore’s Dayal Singh College where he pursued both science and theatre. He joined the Saraswati Stage Society theatre group and even wrote a one-act Urdu play called Karamati (wonder worker). He acquired his Master’s degree in physics from Forman Christian College in Lahore.
A scholarship from the Dayal Singh College Trust led to Bhatnagar leaving the shores of the Indian subcontinent for the first time and head to the US for higher education. As fate would have it, this was the time when World War I had just ended, and on a pit stop in London, he found that the American soldiers on their way back home from the War had booked all the tickets for the US.
Bhatnagar then asked for and was granted the Trust’s permission to enroll in the University College London under the reputed British physical chemist Frederick G Donnan.
Returning to India in August 1921, Bhatnagar took up a position as a chemistry professor at the then newly established Banaras Hindu University (BHU). It is a position he held for three years before becoming a professor of chemistry and Director of University Chemical Laboratories at the University of Lahore—a time when his original research work on emulsions, colloids and industrial chemistry came to the fore. Besides this, his contribution to the field of magneto-chemistry, which essentially entails understanding chemical processes through the use of magnetism, was critical.
However, his first significant contribution to Indian science was the formulation of the Bhatnagar-Mathur Magnetic Interference Balance along with his student KN Mathur, who would later go on to become a great scientist in his own right.
“Early in his career Bhatnagar realised that the application of magnetism to chemistry had great possibilities. He used magnetic susceptibility measurements to study the properties of organic compounds, solutions, films and colloids. At the beginning of his study Bhatnagar realised the lack of suitable equipment for the study of small changes in magnetic susceptibilities. He and Mathur designed an equipment called Bhatnagar-Mathur light interference balance, patented it and licensed the patent to Adam Hilger and Company, London for production,” writes S Sivaram, former director of the National Chemical Laboratory, Pune.
Both mentor and student would go onto write Physical Principles and Applications of Magnetochemistry, a textbook which remains mandatory reading for students in this field till date.
Besides numerous original scientific contributions in the fields of colloid and magneto-chemistry, he contributed considerably to industrial and practical chemistry. Most famously, in 1931, he came up with an ingenious solution for Attock Oil Company, Rawalpindi, a subsidiary of British firm Messrs Steel Brothers and Co, London. The Company was facing problems while drilling for crude oil.
“In the process of drilling for oil, the Attock Oil Company at Rawalpindi were using a drilling mud which, when it came into contact with saline water, set into a solid mass which hardened further and rendered all drilling impossible. The problem was elegantly solved by the addition of an Indian gum which had the remarkable property of lowering the viscosity of the mud suspension and of increasing at the same time its stability against the flocculating action of electrolytes,” says this profile by the Indian National Science Academy.
Genuinely impressed by his solution, the British company awarded him Rs 1.5 lakh, a fortune at the time, and offered him a job to conduct further research in petroleum. However, as a man dedicated to spreading the gospel of science, Bhatnagar refused the job offer and instead donated his winnings to Punjab University, Lahore, so that it could set up its own Department of Petroleum Research.
So impressed was legendary astrophysicist Meghnad Saha that he wrote to Bhatnagar in 1934, saying, “You have hereby raised the status of the university teachers in the estimation of public, not to speak of the benefit conferred on your Alma Mater.”
“Best known for making wax odourless, he also discovered how to make the kerosene flame taller and larger, thus helping multitudes of Indian households. During World War II, Bhatnagar worked on innovations for the British army and Indian troops. He created the anti-gas cloth and developed plastic from waste, besides finding a way to use petroleum extraction by-products in the oil industry,” says The Print profile on the legendary scientist.
In addition to being a trailblazer in the field of science, Bhatnagar was also an institution builder. He worked toward Jawaharlal Nehru’s vision for scientific development, and besides CSIR, helped establish 12 national laboratories—Central Food Processing Technological Institute, Mysore, National Chemical Laboratory, Pune, the National Physical Laboratory, New Delhi, the National Metallurgical Laboratory, Jamshedpur and the Central Fuel Institute, Dhanbad, among others.
“I can truly say that [but] for Dr. Bhatnagar you could not have seen today the chain of national laboratories”, once said Nehru about the ‘Father of India’s Research Laboratories’.
He was not wrong.
As Secretary of the Ministry of Education, Bhatnagar is credited to commission-for the first time-a study that would systematically assess “the scientific manpower needs of the country in all aspects which served as an important policy document for the government to plan the post-independent S&T infrastructure” .
Imagine where Indian scientific research would be if not for Bhatnagar’s contributions.
“Apart from his role in establishing CSIR, Bhatnagar played a key role in the establishment of Indian Rare Earths Ltd., to process the monazite sands of Kerala and was instrumental in the establishment of private sector oil refineries in India,” writes S Sivaraman.
Is it any surprise that he was conferred with the Padma Bhushan, knighted and has one of the most prestigious Indian science awards—The Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize for Science and Technology, named after him?
His untimely death on January 1, 1955 at the age of 60 robbed the world of a scientist whose scientific legacy is staggering. Very few scientists have contributed to both science and nation-building like Bhatnagar.
He was truly in a class of his own.
(Edited by Saiqua Sultan)