Nobel Prize – The hits and misses from Bengal

Nobel Prize – The hits and misses from Bengal

October 31, 2013

The Nobel Prize is considered the highest honour in the fields they are given in, including the Nobel Prize in Economics, which is actually a prize given by the Swedish Central Bank ‘in memory of Alfred Nobel’ (it has the same stature as the other ‘Nobels’). There have been a few Bengali Novel laureates, but there have been prominent misses too.

The winners

Rabindranath Tagore was the first Indian, as well as the first Bengali, to be nominated as well as win a Nobel Prize – the Nobel Prize in Literature for 1913. His book of poems Song Offerings, the English version of Gitanjali (which he himself translated), fetched him the grand prize. Of course, the Nobel then almost being the preserve of Europeans and Americans, his endorsement by WB Yeats, via the good offices of the influential artist and art writer, William Rothenstein, helped to a large extent.

An anecdote must be narrated here, a rather important one at that. Rabindranath’s son, Rathindranath had been entrusted the job of keeping the manuscript while in London. However, one day, he left it on a train by mistake. When he realised this, with utter dismay, he rushed to the lost luggage section, only to find with relief that dutifully left it there. Had it not been found, the Nobel might not have been Tagore’s.

The second and last Bengali to get this came about eight-and-a-half decades later, in 1998. That was Amartya Sen, the distinguished professor and economic theoretician, who got the Nobel in Economics for his contributions to welfare economics.

The nominees

In between there have been a few famous Bengalis who had been nominated, a few not-so-famous, and a few deserving winners who were never nominated.

Meghnad Saha was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Physics four times - in 1930, 1937, 1939 and 1940. Yet, he missed the bus all four times. Incidentally, in 1930, both CV Raman and Meghnad Saha were nominated. Raman got the award for his work on the diffusion of light and for the effect named after him (Raman Effect). Thus, CV Raman became the first Asian to win the Nobel Prize in Physics.

According to the evaluation of the Nobel Prize Committee, Saha’s work in astrophysics was appreciated, but not seen as a new discovery; they felt it was more of an application to known accumulated astrophysical data. But then, as written by Rajinder Singh and Falk Riess in a 1999 issue of Indian Journal of History of Science, another factor weighed in favour of Raman. That was his nomination by influential scientists, Niels Bohr, Johannes Stark and Ernest Rutherford, who themselves were Nobel laureates. Whereas Saha had as nominators Debendra Mohan Bose and Sisir Kumar Mitra, two accomplished physicists in their own right, but nowhere near as influential as Raman’s nominators.

Another Bengali who missed was Upendra Nath Brahmachari, discoverer of the effective treatment for the deadly parasitic disease, kala-azar (actually the Hindi term for ‘black fever’). The acclaimed scientist and medical practitioner was nominated twice, in 1929 and 1942, for the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. He was nominated for synthesizing the antimonial compound, urea stibamine and determining it as an extremely effective and affordable treatment forkala-azar, and also for discovering a new disease, post-kala-azar dermal leishmanoid.

Kala-azar is a protozoal infection occurring in both children and adults. His discovery led to the saving of millions of lives in India, particularly in the erstwhile province of Assam, where several villages were completely depopulated by the devastating disease.

An interesting observation is that all of the Indian nominees in the scientific disciplines in the early part of the twentieth century (and the winner CV Raman) were either from Kolkata or connected with Kolkata. It emphasises the fact that Bengal, in particular Kolkata, was the intellectual centre of India. This is not surprising because most of the organisations based on western education began there.

They who deserved, but never received an award

Three prominent scientists missed out on even being nominated, and undoubtedly the worst case is that of the world-famous physicist, Satyendra Nath Bose. In fact, he is one of the most deserving candidates ever in the world to have missed out on a Nobel Prize.

He wrote a paper in 1924 in which he derived Planck's quantum radiation law without referencing classical physics. The paper would later prove seminal in creating the field of quantum statistics. Bose sent the paper to Albert Einstein in Germany, and the scientist recognised its importance, translated it into German and submitted it on Bose's behalf to the prestigious scientific journal ZeitschriftfürPhysik. The publication led to his international recognition.

Einstein had adopted Bose's idea and extended it to atoms, which led to the prediction of the existence of phenomena that became known as the Bose-Einstein Condensate, a dense collection of bosons – particles named after Bose. Several Nobel Prizes were awarded for research related to the concepts of the boson and the Bose-Einstein Condensate, the latest being the British physicist Peter Higgs this year. But sadly Bose was never awarded a Nobel Prize. However, Bose was too humble to feel any resentment. When asked how he felt about the Nobel Prize snub, he simply responded: "I have got all the recognition I deserve."

Another deserving candidate before SN Bose who was never nominated was Jagadish Chandra Bose. JC Bose was the first to demonstrate wireless signaling in 1895. Later, he even created a radio wave receiver called the 'coherer' from iron and mercury. Though he showed no interest in patenting it, Bose demonstrated his inventions in Kolkata and London. Guglielmo Marconi sent the first wireless communication over sea in 1897, two years after Bose. Yet, in 1909, Guglielmo Marconi and Karl Ferdinand Braunin were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for, in the words of the Nobel Prize citation,“their contributions to the development of wireless telegraphy."

In fact, Neville Mott, who became a Physics Nobel laureate in 1977 for work in solid-state electronics, cites Bose as being "at least 60 years ahead of his time," saying that "in fact, he had anticipated the existence of p-type and n-type semiconductors."

The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine eluded the brilliant doctor, Dr Subhas Mukherjee. In 2010, Dr Robert G Edwards received the Nobel in this category for his development of in-vitro fertilization (IVF), or what is commonly known as test tube baby. He created the world’s first test tube baby in 1978, along with Dr Patrick Steptoe.

But the fortune of Dr Mukherjee was markedly different. He created the world’s second, and India’s first, test tube baby, through a markedly different IVF technique, only 67 days after Dr Edwards. a callous attitude on the part of the then state government prevented Dr Mukherjee from continuing his efforts and he could not even publish all the details of his work. Exasperated, he finally committed suicide in 1981. Today, more than 3 million test tube babies worldwide see the lights of day from Dr Subhas Mukherjee's discovered method. He is still respected and remembered as someone who invented the most efficient process for the birth of test tube babies.

Turning away from the scientific disciplines, literature is another category where quite a few Bengalis have been nominated for the Nobel Prize. The most famous, or rather the only famous, among them is the philosopher, poet and spiritual guru, Aurobindo Ghose, who, after he became a spiritual guru, became known as Rishi Auroboindo. He was nominated for the award in 1943. However, no Nobel Prize was given that year as World War II was raging.

His promotion of pacifism (which led him to became a spiritual guru) led to another nomination for him, in 1950. This time it was for the Nobel Prize in Peace. However, he did not get it.

The little known

Besides Aurobindo, there have been four Bengali nominees in literature. Few people remember them now, though. Roby Datta was nominated in 1916. A promising writer, he lived for only thirty-four years. Some of his better known books are Echoes from East and West: To Which Are Added Stray Notes of Mine Own (1909), Stories in Blank Verse: To Which is Added an Epic Fragment ( 1915) and Poems, Pictures and Songs: To Which is Prefixed the Philosophy of Art (1915). It may be mentioned that Echoes from East and West, published from Cambridge University in 1909, included eleven poems and songs of Rabindranath translated to English.

The case of Harimohan Banerjee is interesting. He was nominated for both peace and literature in 1936, in the latter category for the book, Secrets of Religion and Way to Peace. Besides, he was nominated for Nobel Prize in Peace in 1934 and 1938 as well, and for writing the same book. The 48-page book, first published in 1921, is still in print.

In 1937, came the nomination of Bensadhar Majumdar in literature. He was re-nominated in 1939. Lawyer Sanjib Chaudhuri was nominated in 1938 and 1939. His most well-known book was published later, though, in 1949. It is titled A Constitution for the World Government. A 12-page excerpt of the book, Steps to World Federal Government Through a Constitution for World Government Placed Before the United Nations, was presented before the United Nations in 1950.

Last year, that is, in 2012, litterateur Mahasweta Devi was nominated for the prize. She has been a big influence in modern Bengali literature. Some of her important novels and short stories have also been translated into English. Her books include Jhansir Rani (The Queen of Jhansi), Amrita Sanchay(1964) and Andhanmalik (1967), Aranyer Adhikar (Rights of the Forest), and anthologies such as her Nairhite Megh (Clouds in the Southwestern Sky, 1979). She has also been awarded the Jnanpith Award and the international Magsaysay Award. She is also known as a fighter for the rights of tribals.

In the category of peace, Aurobindo has company in the form of Raja Mahendra Pratap and Nalini Kumar Mukherjee. The former was nominated in 1932. According to the official website of the Nobel Prize, the Raja was nominated for the following reasons: ‘Pratap gave up his property for educational purposes, and he established a technical college at Brindaban. In 1913 he took part in Gandhi's campaign in South Africa. He travelled around the world to create awareness about the situation in Afghanistan and India. In 1925 he went on a mission to Tibet and met the Dalai Lama. He was primarily on an unofficial economic mission on behalf of Afghanistan, but he also wanted to expose the British brutalities in India. He called himself the servant of the powerless and weak.’

Nalini Kumar Mukherjee was an advocate at the Calcutta High Court, who was nominated three consecutive times – 1937, 1938 and 1939. He is the author of The Law of Partnership, first published in 1936. It is still in publication.

Kolkata’s significant contribution

Mention must also be made of another significant Kolkata connection with respect to a Nobel Prize. The second Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1902 was awarded to the Almora-born British doctor, Ronald Ross for his work on malaria. Dr Ross’s research on malaria, however, was conducted entirely in Kolkata, in a tiny room at the SSKM Hospital, then called PG Hospital. In fact, he spent much of his career in the Indian medical service, many years of which were spent at the then Presidency General Hospital. The building where Ross carried out his invaluable research is now called Ronald Ross Building.

Written by Anushtup Haldar for Team

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Comments (6)
Rajinder Singh Reply
July 18, 2014
For more detail you may have a look at:: Singh and Riess, Belated Nobel Prize for Max Born FRS, Indian Journal of History of Science 48, 79-104, 2013. Singh and Riess, Indian nominators and nominees for the Peace Nobel Prize, Science and Culture 78, 22-28, 2012. Singh and Riess, India's Literature Nobel Prize Nominators and Nomiees and Kolkata's contribution, Science and Culture 78, 440-442, 2012. Singh R. India`s physics and chemistry Nobel Prize nominators and nominees in colonial and international context, Notes Rec. R. Soc., Lond., 61, 333-345, 2007.
Pankaj Roy Reply
October 31, 2013
This is a well-written tribute to brilliant Bengalis.
Anirban Reply
October 31, 2013
This is a very informative article, from which I learned a lot. However, I think if we are to mention Bengalis, then the list should also include Muhammad Yunus, who is Bangladeshi, but very much a Bengali (and a Nobel Laureate).
August 30, 2014
Exactly. If we are counting the Bengalis as a whole, then let us not be stopped by the political divider between us. Yunus sir is as much a Bengali as any of us and he should have been mentioned in the article. Please consider this. Otherwise, a brilliant article.
P Basu Reply
October 31, 2013
The Nobel Prize like any other award is not immune to internal politics and lobbying. I highly doubt that these Bengali stalwarts ever tried to lobby for the prize, let alone network with the 'right' people. There is always more than meets the eye.
Niladri Reply
October 30, 2013
Indians, specially Bengalis are deprived from getting many achievements, not only Nobel but also other awards. Satyajit Ray got oscar at the moment when he was dying in hospital. What a shame !! Filmmakers like him are rarely born in the world.
October 31, 2013
It's really sad that such brilliant people were deprived of the Nobel.
Santanu Das Reply
October 30, 2013
It is really shocking to all of us that Satyendranath Bose and Jagadish Chandra Bose did not receive the Nobel. And what to say about Dr. Mukherjee. The man whose invention still bring smiles to so many families, got neglected by the callousness of the government at that time. What a shame!!
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