Mathematician, Jurist, and Educationist
“Men are always rare in all countries through whom the aspiration of their people can hope to find its fulfillment, who have the thundering voices to say that what is needed shall be done; Asutosh had the magic voice of assurance. He had the courage to dream because he had the power to fight and the confidence to win—his will itself was the path to the goal.” – Rabindranath Tagore
“Asutosh could become a mathematician of world rank if he had chosen to confine himself to the pursuit of mathematics alone. However, despite all his preoccupation, Asutosh founded the Calcutta Mathematical Society in 1908 and as President, guided its activities until his death. He was a luminary in legal profession but he decided to serve his country in a manner he thought was the best, to take the best out of western education and Indian heritage and set up a University of great distinction to stimulate the minds of young Indians.”
– D. P. Sen Gupta in Current Science (Vol. 78, No. 12, 25 June 2000)
Asutosh Mookerjee was one of the architects of Modern India. He was a distinguished mathematician of his time. He published about 20 original research papers in mathematics in national and international journals. He wrote a book in mathematics titled Geometry of Conics. He established the Calcutta Mathematical Society in 1908 and directed its activities as its President up till his death. He pursued his mathematical studies and research even when he was busy as a lawyer at the Court. He was one of the most eminent legal luminaries of pre-independent India. He was a highly successful advocate. As Judge of the Calcutta High Court he passed judgement in nearly 2,000 cases and many of which are still quoted as masterpieces of judgment.
However, Mookerjee is mostly known for his pioneering role in broadening the scope of higher education in the country. As Vice Chancellor of Calcutta University he started postgraduate studies and research in the University. He changed the very direction of Calcutta University. He integrated teaching and research at the University level for the first time in India. Before Mookerjee became the Vice Chancellor of Calcutta University, it was only an examining body. Mookerjee started a number of post-graduate departments in science. He also played an instrumental role in strengthening the teaching of arts subjects at the post-graduate level. He presided over the first Indian Science Congress in 1914. He was elected President of the Asiatic Society four times, a record in the annals of the Society up to his time.
Mookerjee was a genius of rare distinction. He was fiercely independent. He never compromised with his principles. He strived hard to establish a synthesis of the best of Western and Indian culture and education. He once said: “…we cannot sit on the lovely snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas absorbed in contemplation of our glorious past. We cannot waste precious time and strength in defence of theories and systems which, have been swept away by the irresistible avalanche of worldwide changes…we can live neither in nor by our defeated past and if we would live in the conquering future, we must dedicate our whole strength to shape its course…let us raise emphatic protest against all suicidal policy of isolation and stagnation.”
Asutosh was born in Kolkata (then Calcutta) on 28 June 1864 to Gangaprasad Mukhopadhyay and Jagattarini Devi. It may be noted that often the birth date of Asutosh is written as 29 June but in his father’s own handwritten record it is mentioned as 28t June, Tuesday 1864 at 4 am. Describing the family background of Asutosh Mookerjee, D. P. Sen Gupta wrote: “His father Gangaprasad Mukhopadhyay was a well-known physician and his mother Jagattarini Devi was known to be a woman of courage and considerable strength of character. It is believed that the great Krittibas who wrote the first Bengali version of the Ramayana was the ancestor of Asutosh. So was Ramachandra Tarkalankar who was appointed by Warren Hastings to the Chair of Nyaya in the newly founded Sanskrit College.” Asutosh was fondly devoted to his mother. He never went against the wishes his mother. Asutosh was personally nominated by the then Viceroy Lord Curzon as the representative of Calcutta citizens to attend the coronation of King Edward VII. However, his mother did not want his son to go abroad and so Asutosh declined the offer.
Asutosh. So was Ramachandra Tarkalankar who was appointed by Warren Hastings to the Chair of Nyaya in the newly founded Sanskrit College.” Asutosh was fondly devoted to his mother. He never went against the wishes his mother. Asutosh was personally nominated by the then Viceroy Lord Curzon as the representative of Calcutta citizens to attend the coronation of King Edward VII. However, his mother did not want his son to go abroad and so Asutosh declined the offer. Asutosh studied at the South Suburban School and from where he passed the Matriculation Examination of Calcutta University in 1879. He then joined the Presidency College. He passed the F.A. examination in 1881 and joined the B.A. course. While an undergraduate student he published a research paper in mathematics in the journal Messenger of Mathematics. The paper was titled “Some extension of a theorem of Salmons.” In 1884, he passed the B.A. examination standing first in the University. H. G. Reynolds, the then Vice Chancellor of the University, in his convocation address referred to Mookejee’s achievement: “The senior wrangler of the year, if I may borrow the phrase from Cambridge, is Asutosh Mookerjee of the Presidency College who stands first in the list of B.A. graduates and is in receipt of the Ishan and Vizianagram Scholarships and of the Hurrish Chander Prize.” The year in which he passed his B.A. examination, Mookerjee was elected as member of the London Mathematical Society. The news of his election to the London Mathematical Society was reported in The Statesman on 12 February 1884: “We understand that Babu Asutosh Mookerjee, who stood first at the last B.A. examination, has been elected a member of the London Mathematical Society. He is the first Indian on whom the Society has conferred this honour.” In 1885, Mookerjee passed his M.A. Examination in mathematics securing first position in order of merit. C. P. Ilbert, the then Vice Chancellor of the University mentioned Mookerjee’s outstanding performance in his convocation address: “In the M.A. Examination Mr. Asutosh Mookerjee to whose achievements my predecessor referred to in 1884 retains his pre-eminence as a mathematician, and for the sake of the profession to which I belong, I am glad to see that he has devoted himself to the study of law and has carried off the gold medal recently offered for competition among law students by my friend Maharaja Sir Jyotindra Mohun Tagore.” In 1886, Mookerjee got his M.A. degree in Natural Sciences. The same year he qualified in the special competitive examination for the award of the prestigious Premchand Roychand studentship. He also studied law from the City College and stood first in all the three examinations of law. He started practising law at the Calcutta High Court in 1888 after obtaining a Bachelor of Law (B.L.) degree the same year. In 1894, he obtained his Doctorate of Law (D.L.) degree. He was invited by Lord Curzon to become a Judge of the Calcutta High Court. Mookerjee joined the High Court in 1904 after obtaining consent from his mother. For a brief period he also served as the Chief Justice of the Calcutta High Court.
It is not widely known that Mookejee served as lecturer in mathematics and mathematical physics at the Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science from 1887 to 1889. He delivered lectures on physical optics, mathematical physics and pure mathematics. His lectures were of exceptional high standard.
Mookerjee’s long association with Calcutta University started in 1889 as a Fellow and the same year he became a member of the Syndicate of the University at the age of 25. He served as President of the Board of Studies in Mathematics. In 1906 he was invited by Lord Minto, the Viceroy, to be the Vice Chancellor of Calcutta University. He remained as Vice Chancellor for the four consecutive terms till 1914. He was again appointed as Vice Chancellor for another term in 1921. As Vice Chancellor his first priority was toestablish post-graduate teaching departments, both in science and arts. His move was strongly opposed by the government. He could not expect any additional financial support for his move. However, Mookerjee achieved his goal against all odds. He could achieve his goal because of the spontaneous support from Taraknath Palit and Rash Behari Ghosh. Taraknath Palit made an initial donation of Rs.13.66 lakhs to the university for two professorships, one each in physics and chemistry. Palit also donated to the University a plot of land and a residential building. The first Palit Professorship of Chemistry was offered to Acharya Prafulla Chandra Ray, who took up the assignment in 1916 after his retirement from the Presidency College. Mookerjee invited Chandra Sekhar Venkata Raman to become the first Palit Professor of Physics. Raman accepted the Palit Professorship in 1917. In 1914, Rash Behari Ghosh made an initial donation of Rs. 10.46 lakhs, out of which four professorships were created, one each in applied mathematics, physics, chemistry and botany. The first incumbents to these four Ghosh professorships were Ganesh Prasad, D. M. Bose, P. C. Mitter, and S. P. Agharkar. During 1919-21, Rash Beharri Ghosh made another donation of Rs. 14 lakhs, out of which the Technology Faculty with a department each in physics and chemistry was established. Commenting on Mookerjee’s ability to collect money B. V. Subbarayappa wrote: “It was Asutosh Mukherjee, the distinguished mathematician and Vice-Chancellor of Calcutta University, who succeeded in rousing public philanthropy and succeeded in raising funds for creating Chairs in physics and chemistry. The University College of Science at Calcutta played a pivotal role in providing scientific leaders of eminence and generating as well as fortifying research in several parts of the country even in colonial ambience.” Mookerjee appointed Meghnad Saha, S. N. Bose and S. K. Mitra as lecturers in the Physics Department. Saha and Bose were first appointed in the Department of Applied Mathematics but they were later transferred to the Physics Department at the instance of Mookerjee. Ramananda Chatterjee (1865- 1943), one of the builders of modern India, commenting on the services rendered by Asutosh Mookerjee to Calcutta University wrote: “The services rendered to Calcutta University by Sir Asutosh Mookerjee deserves unstinted praise. No man ever devoted his intellectual powers, his energies and his time to the service of this University to the extent that Sir Asutosh has done. No one possesses such grasp of the details of all its affairs as he does.” In a similar vein, Lord Lytton, who was governor of Bengal, said: “Asutosh, in the eyes of his countrymen and in the eyes of the world, represented the University so completely that for many years Asutosh was in fact the University and the University Asutosh.” The first Indian Science Congress was inaugurated by Asutosh Mookerjee. The Indian Science Congress was established with the initiatives undertaken by P. S. MacMohan and J. L. Simonsen, who worked jointly as Honorary General Secretaries of the Congress till 1921, when MacMohan was succeeded by C. V. Raman. The first Science Congress was held in January 1914 at Calcutta in the premises of the Asiatic Society of Bengal. In his inaugural address Moookerjee said: “It is now more than two years ago that Professor MacMohan of the Canning College at Lucknow, and Professor Simonsen of the Presidency College at Madras, brought forward a proposal for the foundation of an Indian Association for the Advancement of Science. The object and scope of the proposed Institution were stated to be similar to those of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, namely to give a stronger impulse and a more systematic direction to scientific enquiry, to promote the intercourse of societies and individuals interested in Science in different parts of the country, to obtain a more general attention to the objects of Pure and Applied Science and the removal of any disadvantages of a public kind which may impede its progress. This proposal was widely circulated amongst persons of culture interested in the spread and development of Science in this country, and the fundamental idea, as might easily have been anticipated, met with favourable reception…But it was felt by many men of experience that the pressure of heavy official duties under which many investigators here carry on their scientific work, the climatic conditions which prevail in this country, and the long distances which have to be traversed, constitute practical difficulties of no mean order in the way of the immediate formation of a peripatetic association, designed to meet periodically, in turn, in all the different centres of scientific activity…As the result of a full discussion of the situation, the view ultimately prevailed that the desired object could be attained if a Science Congress was held in the first instance in Calcutta, under the leadership of the Asiatic Society…” Asutosh Mookerjee died on 25 May 1924 in Patna. He had gone Patna in connection with his legal practice. Remembering Asutosh Mookerjee, Michael Sadler, who was Chairman of Calcutta University Commission during 1917-1919, wrote: “In Asutosh Mookerjee India has lost one of her greatest men; the world one of its commanding personalities. He was mighty in battle. He could have ruled an empire. But he gave the best of his powers to education because he believed that in education rightly lies the secret of human welfare and the key to every empire’s moral strength.”