Gopal Bhattcaharya: Pioneering Entomologist


A letter to the editor published in the Bengali Desh magazine drew attention to one of the forgotten pioneers of study of natural history in this country. Gopal Chandra Bhattacharyya was born in the Faridpur District of erstwhile East Bengal (now Bangladesh) in 1885. He came from a modest background; his father eked a living as a village priest in their native village of Lonsing. He studied until the matriculation and passed it in the first division. However by this time he had lost his father and family circumstances made it impossible for him to study further and he became a schoolteacher in order to provide support to his family. He later began to work at a mercantile firm as a telephone operator and it was at this time that he published his first article on bio-luminescence in the then popular Bengali periodical Prabasi. This attracted the attention of none other than Dr Jagadish Chandra Bose who, realizing his potential, organized a position for him at the Basu Vigyan Mandir ( now christened the Bose Institute) where he was employed basically as a technical assistant . He used to repair instruments and keep them in good order, and do drawings for the scientists but his innate research capabilities soon came to the fore and he began to work on his own research projects.
Though his initial interest was in subjects like bio-luminescence and hybridization of fruits and plants, Dr Bose soon directed his interest to entomology and he soon became a leading expert in this field. He published widely, in journals as diverse as the Scientific Monthly and Natural History magazine in the United States and Science and Culture from Calcutta. Backed up with some superb photography (he was an accomplished photographer), these papers were unfortunately mostly published in lesser known journals and failed to attract the attention of the scientific establishment of the day. His photographs of spiders, bats and other small creatures were unique in his day and his painstaking observation of tool making in wasps in now acknowledged to be a pioneering feat.
After Dr JC Bose passed away, he was encouraged by the then director of Bose Institute, Dr D M Bose, who incidentally was a physicist, to work on the effects of antibiotics on ants and tadpoles. He showed that the administration of penicillin leads to an arrest in the metamorphosis of tadpoles to frogs. This, he showed was because penicillin kills certain bacteria present in the tadpoles which are essential for a smooth metamorphosis. He thus was one of the first to show the presence of salogenic, ie health giving, bacteria.
One of his major discoveries which he published in the transactions of the Bose Institute as early as 1940 concerned his observations of ants which he ingeniously induced to nest in cellophane paper so that he could observe them. He showed that the diet of the larvae had an important effect on the future development of ants and controlled their development into Queens or workers. This too was not recognized at that time, but his pioneering observation is now acknowledged.

In 1948 he entered another phase of his life when he teamed up with Dr Satyen Bose (of Bose Einstein Fame) to set up the Bangiya Bigyan Parishad. Dr Satyen Bose had a lifelong interest in writing science in Bengali and this organization was set up to further this effort. Its main purpose was to promote the diffusion of science and scientific knowledge using the local language and quickly became the vehicle for his ( Bhattachharya’s) remarkable talents. He now directed his energies to science popularization and as editor of the magazine Gyan o Bigyan , he was instrumental in popularizing the writing of scientific literature in Bengali. He worked as editor from 1950 to the 1970s. One of his monumental works was the book “ Banglar kit o patanga” ( The insects of Bengal ) to date sadly untranslated, which fetched for him the Rabindra Purashkar in 1975. He had already been awarded the Ananda Purashkar in 1968.

However all this counted for nothing among some of his scientific peers. Gopal did not have formal education beyond school and this was the cause of much humiliation for him when well established scientists refused to acknowledge his work and in one shameful incident, Dr J N Mukherjee, who was then a well known scientist, refused to be interviewed by the All India Radio in a feature that they were producing on the senior scientists of Bengal when he came to know that Gopal Bhattacharya was also to be interviewed. He proclaimed that Bhattacharya may be a science populariser, but was certainly no scientist as he had no academic degrees after his name. The University of Calcutta did confer on him an Honorary D Sc on January 21, 1981, less than three months before his death.

The Government of West Bengal has instituted an award in his name for science popularization the Gopal Chandra Bhattacharya Smriti Purashkar, which has been awarded to many individuals working in this field. This is certainly an appropriate honour, but one should not forget his pioneering research in entomology in which he was the first in his field in India.

Incidentally a group of young scientists has now set up a website where it is possible to access his writings. They can be found here.

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