The Medicine Woman of India
India is proud of its traditional medicine systems represented by the acronym AYUSH (Ayurveda, Yoga & Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homeopathy). Among them, Ayurveda was firmly established by Sushruta (700 or 600 BCE), which was evolving itself through many millennia. Ayurveda is understood as thescience of life (Sanskrit: Ayu = Life and Veda = Knowledge or Science). Sushuruta claims in Sushruta Samhita (Sushruth’s Compendium), that he learned it from none other than the god of medicine, Dhanvantari itself!
Ayurveda has received world’s attention as a holistic system of healing, which presupposes that health consists of a delicate balance between mind, body, and the spirit. Ayurveda aims at promoting good health, rather than at fighting diseases.This is achieved through eliminating impurities, reducing symptoms, increasing resistance to disease, reducing worry, and increasing harmony of life. Most of the medicines of Ayurveda system are preparations from medicinal plants like Garlic, Turmeric, Ginger, Basil (Tulsi), Chamomile, Dandelion, Echinacea, Cayenne Pepper, Marigold, Peppermint, Sage, Lady Ferns, etc. This is by no means an exhaustive list of medicinal plants. The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (UK) estimates that there are 17,810 plant species with documented medicinal properties in the world today.
World is at the same time apprehensive of the Ayurveda medicine, due to the lack of scientific evidences for its effectiveness. In fact, only a few preparations of Ayurveda have been subjected to scientific validation. Further, identification of the presence of high levels of heavy metals like Lead, Mercury and Arsenic, which have proven side-effects on human body, in the existing Ayurveda preparations has prompted a ban on them in the USA and the EU in recent years.
It is in this context, the path-breaking research initiative of Asima Chatterjee to establish the chemistry of medicinal plants,assumes importance. Her research on the chemical structures of Vinca alkaloids and Coumarinsand the identification of their active principles was path-breaking. In her research, she resorted to modern technologies including, UV, mass and NMR spectroscopic techniques and chemical transformation methods, eliciting world-wide approval of her research methods. She also developed some important Ayurveda medicines, including ananti-epileptic drug (Ayush-56) from Marsiliaminuta and Nardostachysjatamansi, an anti-malarial drug (Ayush-64), a combination of four herbs, namely, Alstoniascholaris, Swrrtiachirata, Picrorphizakurroa and Ceasalpinna cristaand a chemotherapy agent out of Vinca alkaloids derived from the periwinkle plant, Catharanthus Roseus found in Madagascar.
Thus, she established herself as a modern time Susrutha, laying the foundation stone for the furtherance of Ayurveda, which keepsproviding holistic cure for millions of people.
The Making of a Medicine Woman
Asima Chatterjee (née Mookerjee) was born on September 23,1917, in Kolkata, India as the eldest of two children of Dr Indra Narayan Mookerjee and his wife, Kamala Devi. Her brother Sarashi Ranjan Mookerjee, a renowned surgeon, collaborated with his sister in her research on medicinal plants. Asima was graduated in Chemistry from Scottish Church College, Kolkata, with Honours in 1940. In 1945, Asima married Baradananda Chatterjee, a physical and soil chemist,and came to be known as Asima Chatterjee. Their daughter, Julie Banerjee, went on to become a professor of organic chemistry at Calcutta University. The liberal and supportive familial environment contributed positively to her life’s mission.
In 1944, Asima Chatterjee took her doctoral degree from the Rajabazar Science College campus of University of Calcutta, thus becoming the first woman to receive a Doctorate in Science from an Indian university. Her doctoral thesis, titled, Indol- Alkaloids and Coumarin of Indian Medicinal Plants, can be considered an inauguration of her life’s mission, namely to unravel the chemical secrets of medicinal plants. Through a lifelong research, reported through about 350 original research papers, Asima established the chemistry of about 50 plant species belonging to 12 botanical families, from which she isolated 20 new alkaloids, 5 polyphenolics.
Asima’s many-sided research activities of more than 40 years culminated in the compilation of The Treatise in Indian Medicinal Plants(6 Volumes) along with Dr. Satyesh Chandra Pakrashi, which was originally published in 1991.
In 1960, Prof Chatterjee was elected as the Fellow of the Indian National Science Academy (INSA), New Delhi. The following year, she became the first female recipient of the country’s most prestigious science award, the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize,for her contribution and achievements in phytomedicine (the study of plant extracts for therapy). In 1975, was conferred the prestigious Padma Bhushan.From 1982 to 1990, she was nominated by the President of India as a Member of the Rajya Sabha. After a long fulfilling life, Prof Chatterjee died at the age of 89 in 2006.
One of the ambitious dreams of Prof Chatterjee was the establishment of an Institute for research and development of Ayurvedic medicines based on Indian medicinal plants, which was realized with the establishment of Central Ayurveda Research Institute for Drug Development, in Kolkata.
The pioneering Spirit
Asima Chatterjee lived in an epoch in India, when dreams and expectations of girls in India revolved round getting married and tending the house and making the home. Aided with the generous support of both her and her husband’s family, she decided follow her own passions., which was proven epochal. Ashima pioneered a new branch of chemistry (Phytochemistry/ phytomedicine),the chemistry of the medicinal plants, through decades long research.
Her researches assumed national importance, as it validated the scientific foundations of a millennia old indigenous medicinal system, the Ayurveda and equipped it to win universal approval and acceptance. She also focused her research to develop few important Ayurveda drugs, which treated some of the most challenging diseases of the modern times, including epilepsy, malaria and cancer.
She inaugurated an important research project for India, which requires many more dedicated minds to complete it. When fully established, Ayurveda could win universal acceptance as one of the holistic medicine system, a unique contribution of India to the modern world.
Passion for Teaching
Along with her strenuous research career, Prof Ashima Chatterjee took care to groom a team of excellent students, who would carry forward her life’s mission. She was revered as an inspiring and loving teacher, as attested by her students. She established herself as an excellent educationalist, who was convinced that the universities are the harbingers of excellence to the individuals and to the nation.
Prof Ashima Chatterjee gladly took up the challenge of developing research facilities in India from the scratch, at a time when India was taking baby steps into the world of quality research in medicine after its independence from the colonial rule. Those were trying days for research. University laboratories were illequipped with inadequate facilities. Financial assistance for research was near to nothing. Researchers had to pay not only for chemicals, apparatus, etc., but also for the elementary requirements, such as, spectral analysis. There was no considerable scholarship support for
research students too. Students were supposed to work for the love for research and pay all additional costs on their doctoral degree, including the administrative costs.
The spectroscopic analyses were costly and time consuming. They had to be almost single-handedly managed by Prof Chatterjee herself, being the only person entitled to handle such sophisticated instruments of the neighbor institutions. It was a passiondriven academic and research career, which has no parallels in modern times.
Life as a verb
Asima Chatterjee loved to work and research till the end of her life. She used to say: “I wish to work as long as I live.” As a girl, she has proven her talent in classical vocal music, evidenced by her winning the second place in the All Bengal Music Conference in 1932. As time proceeded, research became her life’s music. For Prof Chatterjee, life was not a noun, rather it was a verb, something to be worked out. She dedicated her life and career towards a noble goal: To establish the scientific foundations of Ayurveda!