Sir Shanti Swaroop Bhatnagar was a renowned Indian scientist and a professor of chemistry for over two decades. He was the first director-general of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), and he is revered as the “Father of research laboratories”. He was also the first Chairman of the University Grants Commission (UGC). To honour his contributions, CSIR instituted the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize for Science and Technology, since 1958 for outstanding scientists of India.
Sir Shanti Swaroop Bhatnagar was born on 21 February 1894, in Bhera, Punjab region of British India, which is now in Pakistan. His father, Parmeshwari Sahai Bhatnagar, died when he was just a few months old. He was brought up in his maternal grandfather’s house, who was an engineer, and an inspiration for young Shanti Swaroop, who developed an interest in engineering and science from an early age. He had his elementary education at the Dayanand Anglo-Vedic High School, Sikandrabad.
In 1911, he joined the Dayal Singh College, Lahore, where he also took interest in dramatics and also wrote one-act plays. In 1913, he passed the Intermediate Examination of the Punjab University, and joined the Forman Christian College from where he did his BSc in physics in 1916, and MSc in Chemistry in 1919.
Education and Research Work
Bhatnagar got a scholarship from Dayal Singh College Trust to study abroad. He left for America via England, but in England he was not able to sail to America as all ships were reserved for American troops in the wake of the First World War. He was permitted to join the University College London. In 1921, he earned his DSc. While in London, he was also awarded the British Department of Scientific and Industrial Research fellowship.
In August 1921, he returned to India and joined the Banaras Hindu University (BHU) as a professor of chemistry. He worked for three years. Then he moved to Lahore as Professor of Physical Chemistry and Director of University Chemical Laboratories of the University of the Punjab. This was the most active period of his life in original scientific work. His research interests included emulsions, colloids and industrial chemistry. His research works were in the field of magneto-chemistry, the use of magnetism for the study of chemical reactions.
In 1928, he and K.N. Mathur jointly invented the Bhatnagar-Mathur Magnetic Interference Balance. At that time this was one of the most sensitive instruments for measuring magnetic properties. In 1931, it was exhibited at the Royal Society and later marketed by Messers Adam Hilger and Co, London.
Bhatnagar was a university professor for 19 years, from 1921 to 1940; first at the Banaras Hindu University and later then at the Punjab University. He had a reputation as a very inspiring teacher.
Bhatnagar’s first industrial solution was to develop the process for converting bagasse (used sugarcane) into food-cake for cattle. He also solved industrial problems for Delhi Cloth & General Mills, J.K. Mills Ltd., Tata Oil Mills Ltd. and many more.
One of his major innovation was improving the procedure for drilling crude oil which was done for Steel Brothers & Co. Ltd. of London. The company offered Bhatnagar a sum of Rs. 150,000 for research work through the university and it was used to establish the Department of Petroleum Research. This helped research related to petroleum product and process.
Contributions to Industrial Research in India
In 1940, the Board of Scientific and Industrial Research (BSIR) was formed by the Government of India and Bhatnagar was appointed as the Director.
In 1942, the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) was constituted as an autonomous body. In 1943, the proposal mooted by Bhatnagar to establish five national laboratories was approved. These included National Chemical Laboratory, National Physical Laboratory, Fuel Research Station; which were set up to mark the beginning of scientific laboratories in India.
At CSIR, he also mentored a number of promising young scientists of the time. Bhatnagar along with Homi Jehangir Bhabha, Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis, Vikram Sarabhai and others, helped in building India’s post-independence science and technology infrastructure.
After India’s independence, the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) was set up under the chairmanship of Dr. Bhatnagar. He became its first Director-General.
He established a total of twelve national laboratories which include the Central Food Processing Technological Institute, Mysore; the National Metallurgical Laboratory, Jamshedpur; the Central Fuel Institute, Dhanbad, to name a few.
He also served as the Secretary of the Ministry of Education and Educational Adviser to the government. He played an instrumental role in the establishment of the National Research Development Corporation (NRDC) of India.
He died of a heart attack on 1 January 1955, aged only 60.
Honours and Recognitions
Bhatnagar was appointed as an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1936, for his contributions to pure and applied chemistry. He was knighted with the title “Sir”, in 1941 for his contributions to the advancement of science. In 1943, the Society of Chemical Industry, London, elected him as Honorary Member and later as Vice President. Bhatnagar was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS) in 1943.
Post-independence in India, he became the President of the Indian Chemical Society, National Institute of Sciences of India and the Indian National Science Congress. He was awarded Padma Bhushan by the Government of India in 1954.
Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize for Science and Technology was instituted in his honour, which is the most prestigious award for science in India.
Written By: Raj Kumar Hansdah
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