Ronald Ross | Medicine, 1902
In a cubbyhole inside SSKM Hospital (then known as Presidency General Hospital), British doctor Ronald Ross discovered how the malarial parasite spread inside the body of a mosquito — a breakthrough that helped better detection of the disease and its prevention.
It made him the first from Kolkata to win the Nobel Prize. Ross — born in Almora — was also the first British to win the prestigious award and the first born outside Europe to win a Nobel.
The building inside SSKM Hospital, where he had worked for several years leading to the Nobel, is named after him. A plaque at the gate announces that he did his Nobel-winning research at the building. It was curiously inaugurated by the Nobel laureate himself in 1927.
While Ross carried out the final phase of his landmark research in Kolkata, he had started working on the malarial parasite five years previously, in Secunderabad. His first breakthrough came when he discovered that the malaria parasite grew in the stomach of the mosquito. He collected 20 mosquitoes with the parasite and paid a patient eight annas to let them feed on his blood.
But it was in Kolkata that he took his research to the next level. His experiments conducted in the city revealed that the parasite spread from the stomach of the mosquito to its salivary gland and got easily transmitted via bites. He used birds to prove the movement of the parasite and its transmission.
In 1897, his research had come to a virtual halt after Ross was transferred out of Kolkata to Bombay and then to Rajasthan, which were malaria-free zones. It was on the recommendation of Scottish physician Pattrick Manson that the British government let Ross return to Kolkata on ‘special duty’. He was allowed to use General Cunningham’s laboratory and Ross immediately embarked on his work. Aided by three lab assistants, he worked almost round-the-clock but there was an obstacle: a lack of scope to study the parasite since Kolkata, too, had few malaria patients.
Ross built a bungalow with a laboratory in Mahanad village to be able to collect mosquitoes for his research. But he eventually used birds for his research on the advice of Manson.
Three years before winning the Nobel, Ross had resigned from the Indian Medical Service and joined the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine but continued to work on malaria in different parts of the world.
Rabindranath Tagore | Literature, 1913
Jorasanko Thakurbari, the ancestral home of the Tagores, is the cradle of many of Rabindranath’s poems that were pieced together and rendered into English by the poet himself in the form of ‘Song Offerings’, for which he won the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Significantly, ‘Song Offerings’ is often identified as the English rendering of ‘Gitanjali’, a volume of poems by Tagore composed between 1904 and 1910 because the majority (51) of the poems were picked up from ‘Gitanjali’. ‘Song Offerings’ also anthologized English translations of previously published works, like 17 poems from ‘Geetmalya’, 16 from ‘Naibedya’, 11 from ‘Kheya’, 3 from ‘Shishu’ and 1 each from ‘Chaitali’, ‘Smaran’, ‘Kalpana’, ‘Utsarga’ and ‘Acholayatan’.
“Though the majority of them were composed in Bengali at Jorasanko, Tagore embarked on the translation of them in 2011, when he was physically unwell and spending time at Shilaidaha, now in Bangladesh. He took the liberty of ‘free-translation’ while rendering 103 poems into English, so each poem became a transcreation rather than a literal translation of the original poem,” says Tanima Roy Bhattacharya, a Tagore scholar.
At Jorasanko, the poet had many places to write poems on the first floor of Bichitra Bhawan, at Ram Bhawan, at sprawling rooftops or in the long balcony. The creative-restlessness did not allow him to stick to one place for long. It is not that the translation was entirely done in Shilaidaha. He came back to Jorasanko to continue the work and finished them on board the ship during his voyage to Britain, adds Roy Bhattacharya.
The first edition of ‘Song Offerings’ was published in 1912 from London by the India Society. It was priced 10½ shillings. The second edition was published by The Macmillan Company in 1913 and was priced 4½ shillings. The second edition contained the famous preface by W B Yeats.
The Nobel committee said: “…because of his profoundly sensitive, fresh and beautiful verse, by which, with consummate skill, he has made his poetic thought, expressed in his own English words, a part of the literature of the West”.
C V Raman | Physics, 1930
In the first decade of the 20th century, when Chandrashekhar Venkata Raman came to the city, he was a rare combination — an employee at A G Bengal with a heart entrenched in science. He itched to research and experiment with just about anything — from the vibrations of the violin string to the stretched skin-head of a percussion instrument and also the blue of the sea water. So, when he spotted a tramcar advertisement that an institution called the Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science (IACS) was inviting amateur and professional scientists to come, research, deliberate, and debate, he was thrilled.
Those days the IACS, that was set up by Mahendralal Sircar in 1876 to add scientific flavour to the Bengal Renaissance, was not located at its present Jadavpur address, but at 210, Bowbazar Street, where the Goenka College now stands. So, Raman happily worked here from 1907 to 1933 on a broad spectrum of light and sound. In 1928 itself, in the IACS laboratories, Raman discovered that when light traverses a transparent material, some of the deflected light changes wavelength and amplitude, says IACS director Santanu Bhattacharya. His findings were first published in the Indian Journal of Physics, which he had started at the IACS, and then in Nature. Two years later, when he was selected for the Nobel, the scientific world had already taken note of his findings on light scattering.
He was the first Asian to win the Nobel in a scientific field, making the award even more special for the country.
Till date, the spectroscope that Raman used for his experiments on light rays is preserved at the IACS, which plans to celebrate the centenary of Raman’s Nobel in 2030.The archives at the IACS also has the 1928 edition of Nature, where Raman’s findings were documented for the world to deliberate upon. A large number of research papers are also present in the archives.
Mother Teresa | Peace, 1979
Soon after Mother Teresa passed away, a bouquet arrived at the Missionaries of Charity office on AJC Bose Road with an attached note that read: “An angel came to show us the way. She epitomized not only what we could do, but what we should do. Mother Teresa was the conscience of the world.”
Twenty-two years after her death, the conscience is still active.
Mother House on AJC Bose Road continues to be a refuge for the hungry, the poor and the ailing. Hundreds still arrive here every day either to be fed or treated.
“Nothing has changed. We continue to follow the path Mother showed us and requested us to follow. People who have nowhere to go know that Mother House is a place they will get refuge and compassion,” says a nun at Mother House, who has just arrived from visiting a slum in Beliaghata to distribute medicine.
The Missionaries of Charity became synonymous with human service across the world and brought Mother Teresa a Nobel peace prize.
When she was inducted into sainthood in 2016 — though many felt she was already a saint — even her critics had said that it was difficult to find any other man or woman who epitomised saintliness.
“Mother Teresa fought against poverty by directly going to the slums and trouble-torn areas. She embraced a simple life, which she devoted to the service of the poor and the downtrodden. Her understanding of the pain of others was very subtle,” says another nun. Missionaries of Charity, headquartered in Kolkata, opened several centres in the city for children, women and leprosy patients. The order she established is still working at these centres, providing relief to thousands.
“To the world she was a Nobel-prize winner, an ambassador or peace and an iconic figure but to us, whom she served, she was only Mother. During that time, they would say if you have nowhere to go, you can go to Mother and she will embrace you,” says Rafique Jan, a homeless man who stays on the pavements of Nonapukur.
Amartya Sen | Economics, 1998
In 1933, when Rabindranath Tagore, the first Asian Nobel laureate, was asked to name the baby born to the daughter of his secretary, he chose Amartya, the “other-worldly”.
“It’s an outstanding name. I can see the boy will grow into an outstanding person,” the poet told the parents. Amartya’s childhood was spent at the house of his maternal grandfather Kshitimohan Sen, a renowned Sanskrit scholar, at Santiniketan. He did his schooling at Patha Bhavana, the school set up by Tagore. The ambience of the Santiniketan ashrama and its surroundings influenced Sen’s formative years. Poverty was a palpable reality for him as he saw the daily struggle of the tribals in the villages that punctuated the Visva-Bharati campus. Naturally, what he saw and experienced in rural Birbhum has always been the backbone of Sen’s path-breaking work on poverty, for which he won the Nobel.
He even named the trust that researches the different aspects of education and poverty in Bengal Pratichi, after his ancestral house. A next-door neighbour of the Sens remembers how little Amartya was fond of studying in a small enclosure outside his house, so that he could physically stay close to the neighbourhood. “He extensively visited a number of villages to get first-hand information required for his research. Mention may be made of two villages — Sajhapur and Kuchli — which were later mentioned in his papers. He would visit villages on his bicycle,” says Kumar Rana, a senior official of the Pratichi Trust. His Kolkata connection begins with Presidency College, which he attended in 1951. He earned a BA in economics, where he topped his class. In 1953 Sen moved to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he earned a second BA in economics in 1955 with a first class, topping the list. At this time, he was elected president of the Cambridge Majlis. While Sen was officially a PhD student at Cambridge (though he had finished his research in 1955–56), he was offered the position of First-Professor and First-Head of the economics department of the then newly created Jadavpur University. He is still the youngest chairman to have headed the department of economics, where he worked between 1956 and 1958.