Subodh Chandra Mahalanobis: A Pioneering Indian Biologist

By Henry Dee

Image reproduced with permission of Cardiff University

In India, Subodh Chandra Mahalanobis is widely recognised as a pioneer of physiology – the study of the functions and mechanisms of cells, organs and organ systems – a man of “extraordinary energy and vitality” who “initiated the study of physiology as [a] basic science outside medical colleges” in India (Koley 2003, Chandra 2018, Coyajee 1939). Physiology had been an integral component of the Edinburgh medical curriculum from at least the 18th century, and was an important branch of science at the start of the 20th century, encompassing a number of today’s more recognisable sciences. Over the course of Mahalanobis’ career, from the 1890s to 1940s, “biochemistry” for example was very much subdisciplines under the broader umbrella of “physiology” (Jacyna 1995). Mahalanobis was the first professor of physiology in India, dominating the physiology department at Presidency College in Kolkata between 1900 and 1927. Importantly, he was also a pioneer Indian academic in Britain, becoming the first Indian university examiner at any British university. Mahalanobis was also politically active, both in India and in Scotland, championing the cause of Indian nationalism.

Subodh Chandra Mahalanobis was born in Kolkata in 1868. Growing up close to Presidency College, he soon had academic ambitions:

In my childhood I witnessed the imposing building [of Presidency College] slowly rising from foundation to plinth and from floor to floor, assuming gradually its dignified proportions. In my schooldays, I often stood at the gate – trying to get a look at the learned professors whose names inspired awe. Never, even in my wildest dreams, did it occur to me that someday I might have the chance of following in the wake of such illustrious men

(Mahalanobis 1927).

After studying at Calcutta Boys School and Calcutta City School, he enrolled at Calcutta Medical College in 1883 (in modern day Kolkata), where he studied physics, logic, higher mathematics, chemistry and human anatomy. He was also politically active before he left in India. Both he and his brother Pradobh Chandra Mahalanobis were volunteers for the Indian National Congress (INC) in 1890.

In 1891, Mahalanobis travelled from India to “the bonnie city” of Edinburgh to study for a BSc, where he soon became a “distinguished student” (Dundee Evening Post, 1900). It had been “the cherished desire of my heart to see Edinburgh some day, and become a member of the University.” Mahalanobis cherished the cosmopolitan nature of this “Modern Athens” in particulars:

Under the academic shelter of this University of world-wide reputation, muster young men from all parts of the world and spend there a most important part of their lives. The Scotch proverb tells us ‘birds of a feather flock together’: but in Edinburgh University, I have seen birds of many feathers flocking together

(Mahalanobis 1899)

During his time in Edinburgh, Mahalanobis was politically active. He was president of the Edinburgh Indian Association (EIA), a founding member of the Edinburgh Ethical Society, and questioned “why the University of Edinburgh had been so long in throwing her portals open to the fair sex?” (Mahalanobis 1899). At the time of his presidency, the EIA was a hub of critical political discussion, drawing membership from across Asia and the Caribbean, holding regular debates on topics such as the rights and education of Indians.  He also vividly remembered the “pitched battle fought in the University Quadrangle” over the position of University Rector: “The projectiles flying about during the campaign, mainly consisted of rotten eggs and tissue-paper balls stuffed with powders that were not of an agreeable kind.” Edinburgh students generally had “quite a tradition of rowdyism”, which was “not objectionable” but became “intolerable when displayed out of season – when the student forgets his self-respect and defames his sacred title” (Mahalanobis 1899).

Botany was Mahalanobis’ “chief subject”, but he also took courses in natural history, natural philosophy, practical physiology, geology and petrology, graduating in August 1896. Mahalanobis vividly remembered, in particular,

the day when women students were first admitted to the University Classes. I was, at that time, in the class of Natural Philosophy – which, by the way, had the largest number of women students! The first morning the ladies came to the class – a little before the lecture began – we gave them a tremendous reception. Just imagine three hundred voices sounding a peal of student-like glee with a merry song. Guess what we sang: it was ‘Clementine’!

(Mahalanobis 1899)

The “illustrious” and “esteemed” Professor William Rutherford, the Edinburgh chair in physiology – nicknamed “Bilirubin” by his students – made a particular impression on Mahalanobis, and he later remembered Rutherford’s “kindness as a teacher and a friend” (The Student 1899, Mahalanobis 1899). Professor Peter Tait, in turn, was infamous for his “scientific chauvinism”: “The Scottish man of Science is jealously guarding British claims as regards priority in scientific discoveries. For this, Tait had been severely taken to task by [Emil] Du Bois-Reymond. But the blow was, without delay, hurled back to the donor!” (Mahalanobis 1899)

After graduating from Edinburgh, Mahalanobis worked at the laboratory of the Royal College of Physicians in Edinburgh between 1896 and 1897, researching the migration and life history of salmon in fresh water. He was subsequently a joint-author of an “important report” on the topic in The Journal of Physiology (Aberdeen Press and Journal 1898, O’Connor 1991).

In September 1897, Mahalanobis started work as a demonstrator and assistant lecturer in physiology at the University College of South Wales and Monmouthshire (which later became Cardiff University) – “the first instance of an Indian being appointed examiner for a science degree in a British university” (Cardiff Times 1897). The same year he was elected as a member of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. His colleague was Professor John Berry Haycraft, another Edinburgh graduate, who as Head of the Department of Physiology between 1893 and 1920, and the author of Darwinism and Race Progress, a eugenicist text, in 1895. Haycraft fell ill in 1898, and Mahalanobis took over as acting head of the department. He was elected to the Physiological Society in 1899. After a three year stint in Cardiff, Mahalanobis resigned in May 1900. The University Council expressed “its high opinion of the services he has rendered to the College, and its best wishes for his future career” (SCA Minutes of Council 1900).

Mahalanobis resigned after being appointed as professor of physiology at Presidency College, Kolkata – “called upon to do spade work in connection with the teaching of Biology” (Mahalanobis 1927). In doing so, he established physiology as an independent academic subject in India. Contemporary sources indicate that the move to India may not have been Mahalanobis’ preferred choice, however, and partly a result of racist prejudices faced in Britain. India, the official of the INC in London, reported that Mahalanobis “was induced to abandon an assured career of distinction in England for prospects which have proved to be more nebulous”. India criticised how British institutions had a preference for white academics (India 1906). At Presidency College, he was joined by a number of other Edinburgh-educated Indian intellectuals, including the famous chemistry professor Prafulla Chandra Ray, the mathematician Rabindranath Sen, the economist AC Sen Gupta, and the psychologist Prasanna Kumar Roy, who became the first Indian principal of the college in 1902.

Mahalanobis, quickly had a considerable impact in Kolkata. As noted by Bandyopadhyay, he

taught both human physiology and botany in the intermediate and bachelor’s (IA and BA) classes. In 1901, an honours course in physiology and botany was started in accordance with the old regulations of Calcutta University. Thus, the study of physiology as a basic science started in 1901. During the first three years, Mahalanobis was the only teacher

(Bandyopadhyay 2011)

Having graduated from Mahalanobis’s course, Nibaran Chandra Bhattacharya assisted with the teaching of physiology from 1904, when physiology, botany and zoology were separated into separate departments. Widely recognised for his achievements, Mahalanobis attended the ‘Darwin Centenary’ celebrations in Cambridge, Britain, in 1909. In 1912, the Kolkata physiology department shifted to new laboratories, based on the physiology department that Mahalanobis had worked in at Cardiff. As noted by Bandyopadhyay, due to scarce resources and the high teaching load “there was not much scope for research work in colleges.” Nevertheless, “Mahalanobis created an impact on his students with his knowledge, oratory expression, choice of words, sense of discipline and cleanliness, dignity and sense of pride and an overall impeccable personality. He was a successful teacher in the truest sense” (Bandyopadhyay 2011).

After moving to RG Kar Medical College in 1927, Mahalanobis became the founding president of the Physiological Society of India (PSI) in 1934. The PSI was an “all-Indian” organisation established to “promote and enhance physiological, biochemical and allied studies and research in India”. It was soon publishing The Indian Journal of Physiology and Allied Sciences four times a year. Mahalanobis worked at the RG Kar Medical College and Hospital until 1942.

Mahalanobis had a lasting impact in India as an educationalist. As noted by Susanta Koley, because of Mahalanobis, physiology “flourished tremendously” and was soon taught “in numerous schools and colleges all over India” (Koley 2003). At the end of his time at Presidency College, Mahalanobis himself championed “that great community which is known and respected all over the world as ‘the student’ – a community that knows no distinction of colour or creed – of race or rank”. It had “been my privilege for the last thirty years, to be associated with youthful seekers of science whose eagerness to learn has always been a source of joy and inspiration to me.” Mahalanobis hoped he had “been a guide in your excursions into the mystery-road of Biology” (Mahalanobis 1927). He was nevertheless also an important pioneer within British academia (despite the barriers that he faced), becoming one of (if not the) first Indian academics to work at a university in Britain. Edinburgh was key to his career. He fondly remembered

The Edinburgh University with its venerable buildings, its time-honoured traditions, its charming associations, its youthful friendships has left a never-to-be obliterated impression on my heart. The moulding of character by the personal influence of great teachers, the kindling of intellectual fire, and the awakening of noble aspirations in young minds by the electric touch of giant intellectuals, are indeed, the highest mission of all great educational institutions

(Mahalanobis 1899)

I’m very grateful to Alison Harvey and Anna Sharrad at the Special Collections and Archives, Cardiff University, for generously forwarding me material relating to Mahalanobis from their collections.

Primary sources

Anon., ‘Life History of Salmon: Investigations by Dr Noel Paton and Others’, Aberdeen Press and Journal, 11/05/1898.

Anon., ‘Edinburgh Indian Association Dinner’, Amrita Bazar Patrika, 02/02/1898.

Anon., ‘Distinguished Guests’, Cambridge Independent Press, 25/06/1909

Anon., ‘Cardiff University College’, Cardiff Times, 23/10/1897.

Anon., ‘An Indian Professor’, Dundee Evening Post, 03/11/1900.

Anon., Graphic, 03/07/1909.

Anon., ‘Notes and News’, India, 15/06/1906 – in the same article, India questioned why white English academics were appointed to positions in Indian universities, asking “what are the education qualifications and University distinctions of each of these gentlemen, and why their claims have been allowed to over-ride those of the many eminent Indian graduates of English and Scotch Universities who are relegated to the lower-paid and subordinate ranks” (accessed 14/09/2019).

Anon., The Presidency College Magazine, 1:4 (September 1917).

Anon., The Scotsman, 11/03/1899.

Anon., The Student, 20/01/1898.

Anon., ‘The Late Professor Rutherford’, The Student, 02/03/1899.

Anon., ‘University Notes’, The Student, 09/03/1899.

F.D. Boyd, J.C. Dunlop, A.L. Gillespie, G. Gulland, E.D.W. Grieg, S.C. Mahalanobis, M.I. Newbigin & D.N. Paton, ‘The Physiology of Salmon in Fresh Water’, Journal of Physiology, 22 (1898).

J.C. Coyajee, ‘Some Reminisces’, Presidency College Magazine, 25: 2 (March 1939), p.165.

S.C. Mahalanobis, ‘Reminiscences of Edinburgh University’, The South Wales and Monmouthshire University College Magazine, 6:5 (June 1899). I’m indebted to Alison Harvey at the Special Collections and Archives of Cardiff University for forwarding on this material.

S.C. Mahalanobis, ‘Farewell Address’, Presidency College Magazine, 14: 2 (December 1927).

Centre for Research Collections, University of Edinburgh (CRC), ‘S.C. Mahalanobis’ in Graduates in Pure Science to 1899.

Special Collections and Archives, Cardiff University (SCA), UCC/CL/M/4 Minutes of Council, March 1895-May 1900.

Special Collections and Archives, Cardiff University (SCA), UCC/CL/M/4 Minutes of Senate, October 1896-June 1902.

Secondary sources

A. Bandyopadhyay, ‘From Physiology to Physiological Chemistry to Biochemistry’, in D.P. Burma & M. Chakravorty (eds.) History of Science, Philosophy and Culture in Indian Civilization, Volume 13 Part 2, (New Delhi 2011).

A.K. Chandra, ‘First Fifty Years (1900-1950) of Physiology in India’, Indian Journal of History of Science, 53:1 (2018).

J. Gosh, P. Maiti & A.K. Bera, ‘Indian Statistical Institute: Numbers and Beyond, 1931-47’, in U.D. Gupta (ed.) History of Science, Philosophy and Culture in Indian Civilization, Volume 15 Part 4, (New Delhi 2011).

S. Koley, ‘Indian Journal of Physiology and Allied Sciences: An Analysis of Citation Pattern’, Annals of Library and Information Studies, 50:1 (2003).

S. Jacyna, ‘Theory of Medicine, Science of Life: The Place of Physiology in the Edinburgh Medical Curriculum, 1790-1870’, in V. Nutton & R. Porter, The History of Medical Education in Britain (Amsterdam, 1995).

W.J. O’Connor, British Physiologists 1885-1914: A Biographical Dictionary, (Manchester, 1991).