Asima Chatterjee

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Did you see Saturday’s Google Doodle and wonder what it was all about? The image, with “Google” spelled out in organic chemical line drawings, honored the 100th birthday of this week’s WiSE Wednesday honoree, the late Dr. Asima Chatterjee, an Indian chemist who developed drugs to treat epilepsy and malaria based on chemicals from plant extracts.

Chatterjee was born in Bengal and raised in Calcutta, where she earned a PhD in organic chemistry from the University of Calcutta. Interested in why certain plants were effective at treating disease, Chatterjee dove into the field of phytomedicine. After extracting and purifying active chemicals from plants, she characterized them and developed techniques to synthesize them in the lab. With large quantities of these compounds, she could study their mechanism of action against diseases including cancer, epilepsy, and malaria.

In addition to being a leader in phytomedicine, Chaterjee was a trailblazer for women in science; she founded a department of chemistry at the Lady Bradbourne College of the University of Calcutta, and her PhD was the first Doctorate of Science granted to a woman by an Indian University. Her numerous honors included the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Award in chemical science (she was the first woman to win), fellowship in the Indian National Science Academy, and election as the Indian Science Congress Association’s first female General President.

Chaterjee loved science, and she passed on her passion for chemistry to her daughter, Julie, who became a successful organic chemist. She also served as an inspiration and mentor for numerous students and colleagues. Chaterjee passed away in November 2006.

Photo Credit: The Indian Scientists, CC BY-NC-SA 3.0