Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar, who died on 1 January 1955, was raised by his maternal grandfather, an engineer.
Bengaluru: In the early 1920s, Messrs Steel Brothers and Co, London, found themselves facing an expensive problem.
A subsidiary, the Rawalpindi-based Attock Oil Company, was having trouble drilling for crude oil, as the thick, viscous agent used to prevent the leakage of oil into the drill bit kept solidifying.
Put in charge of fixing this problem was a 31-year-old scientist, who worked on it at the Panjab University in Lahore and devised a solution: The viscosity of the fluid had to be reduced. He asked Attock to add acacia gum — also called Indian gum, obtained from the sap of the acacia tree — into the mixture, and the rest, as they say, is history.
For the larger cause
Steel Brothers and Co was so pleased with the young scientist, Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar, that they offered him Rs 1.5 lakh, more than a fortune at the time, to research petroleum.
Bhatnagar declined, asking the company to give the money to the university instead so they could start research on petroleum.
Afterwards, astrophysicist Meghnad Saha wrote to Bhatnagar in praise of his initiative.
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“India does not lack in men earning millions, but, if a few of those millionaires were guided by the fine example set by a comparatively poor teacher like yourself, I think her scientific and moral progress would have been rapid.”
This young scientist, who passed away on 1 January 1955, is today remembered as one of the early champions of science and technology in India who helped set up crucial infrastructure in Independent India for the pursuit of these fields.
Off to England
Bhatnagar was born on 21 February 1894 in Bhera, in what is today Pakistan Punjab. His father passed away before his first birthday, and Bhatnagar was sent to live with his maternal grandfather, an engineer credited with inspiring an early interest in science in the child.
Bhatnagar did his schooling at the Dayanand Anglo-Vedic High School and subsequently enrolled at the then newly founded Dayal Singh College, Lahore, in 1911. He then joined the Forman Christian College, where he obtained a BSc in physics in 1916, and an MSc in chemistry in 1919.
Having received a scholarship from Dayal Singh College Trust to study abroad, Bhatnagar wanted to travel to the US. However, ships embarking from England for the US at the time were filled with American soldiers returning home from World War I. So he went to University of London instead, where he earned a Doctor of Science (a higher doctorate) degree in chemistry in 1921.
On his return to India, Bhatnagar, aged all of 27, joined the Banaras Hindu University (BHU) as a professor of chemistry.
He taught there for three years before taking up a job at the University of Panjab, Lahore, as a professor of physical chemistry and director of the university’s chemical laboratories.
Anthropogenic or human-caused climate change was not a known concept in the early 20th century.
Until after 1958, when atmospheric carbon dioxide was finally measured and found to be steadily increasing, fossil fuels were where physics and chemistry research was at.
And Bhatnagar was among the leading lights of the field. 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 byproducts in the oil industry.
He was also keen on magnetic chemistry. In 1928, he and friend K.N. Mathur developed the Bhatnagar-Mathur Magnetic Interference Balance, which was at the time considered to be one of the most sensitive instruments measuring magnetism and related properties. It was even exhibited at the Royal Society Soiree in the UK in 1931.
The duo also wrote the comprehensive textbook Physical Principles and Applications of Magnetochemistry.
The actor in the scientist
However, Bhatnagar was not a man of science alone and loved the performing arts, especially drama and poetry. While at Dayal Singh College, Lahore, he is said to have excelled as an actor. Later, he famously wrote a prize-winning one-act play in Urdu, Karamati. When at BHU, he wrote the university’s song, the Kulgeet, which is sung to this day.
In 1940, Bhatnagar was appointed the director of the newly-formed Board of Scientific and Industrial Research, modelled on the British body by the same name.
The institution had an annual budget of Rs 5 lakh, but Bhatnagar wanted research to be better funded. When the government agreed to issue an annual grant of Rs 10 lakh for five years for industrial research, the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) was established as an autonomous body in 1942.
By 1943, Bhatnagar had already established five national laboratories under its banner. Today, CSIR runs 38 laboratories. The institution’s prestigious Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize, awarded for excellence in the sciences, is a tribute to the first director-general of CSIR, who helped shape much of research in India today.
In 1934, he became one of the earliest fellows of the Indian Academy of Sciences. He was bestowed the Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1936, and knighted in 1941 for his contributions to science. He was also elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1943.
After Independence, Bhatnagar served as secretary in the ministry of education, and educational adviser for the government. He was an ardent proponent of industrial research, and his negotiations with the oil industry led to the establishment of a number of oil refineries in India.
The first chairman of the University Grants Commission, he also had stints as the president of the Indian Chemical Society, National Institute of Sciences of India (now known as the Indian National Science Academy), and the Indian Science Congress.
He was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 1954. Months later, Bhatnagar passed away unexpectedly on New Year’s Day, 1955, due to a cardiac arrest. He was 60.
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