Mahendralal Sarkar the renowned physician who had the privilege of treating Sri Ramakrishna was not only a brilliant homeopath but was also a social reformer and an ardent propagator of science education and research. His colourful life is an illustration of the many dimensions of his personality and achievements. He became a spiritualist after coming into contact with Sri Ramakrishna. But he was also a propagator of the scientific view of life. He was the founder of the Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science where Nobel Laureate CV Raman and many other scientists started their scientific experiments.
Mahendralal secured admission in Hare School as a free student in 1840. He passed the junior scholarship examination and joined Hindu College(Presidency College) in 1849 where he studied up to 1854. He was transferred to Calcutta Medical College since Hindu College didn’t have a science department. He passed the final examination in 1860 in medicine, surgery and midwifery. In 1863, he got the degree of MD. He and Jagabandhu Bose were the second MDs of the Calcutta University after Chandrakumar De (1862).
Mahendralal within a short period turned into a reputed doctor. He was so well regarded that other physicians used to send their patients to him for consultation. He was selected as the secretary of the Bengal branch of the British Medical Association in1863. During this time, he criticised homeopathy as the practice of quacks. But soon some events brought a drastic change in his outlook towards homeopathic treatment which Mahendralal had described in the July issue of his journal, Calcutta Journal of Medicine.
He was given a copy of Morgan’s Philosophy Of Homeopathy for review in the journal, the Indian Field. Mahendralal took it as an opportunity to criticise homeopathy but later changed his mind as he realised that without knowing anything about homeopathy it would be unfair to write such a review. Mahendralal went to Rajendralal Datta, an eminent physician who was also a homeopathic practitioner.
Mahendralal started verifying the results of Rajendralal’s homeopathic treatment. Besides, he himself prepared some homeopathic medicines and observed their effect on patients. He was soon convinced that homeopathic treatment was scientific and himself started homeopathic treatments (which were less costly than allopathy).
On 16 February 1867, during the fourth annual meeting of the Medical Association, of which Mahendralal was the Vice-President, he gave a lecture on “The uncertainties in medical sciences and the relationship between diseases and their remedial agents.” In this lecture he spoke in favour of homeopathic treatment which created an uproar among the audience. As a result he was ousted from the British Medical Association.
In January 1868 Mahendralal founded a journal called Calcutta Journal of Medicine, with himself as editor. The main aim of this journal was to popularise homeopathic treatment. In the beginning, Mahendralal had no patients but reading of Materia Medica of Homeopathy changed things. He was also inspired by the philosophy of Samuel Hahnemann who abandoned the existing practices of medicine which caused bloodletting and discovered the homeopathic system on purely humanitarian grounds. Eventually Sarkar became one of the top homeopaths. The celebrated homeopath of Calcutta, Dr. Berigny, while leaving the city, compared himself with the upcoming Mahendralal and said, “Now the moon is to set because we are seeing the rising sun on the horizon.”
Dr. Sarkar was a humanist who believed that science could add to the prosperity of humanity and the cultivation of modern science was required to remove poverty and ignorance of Indians. During those days only government organizations like the Geological survey of India facilitated scientific research work and universities were only degree-awarding authorities. Mahendralal wrote an article in the Calcutta Journal of Medicine on the need to establish a national institution for the cultivation of sciences by his countrymen. He wrote that this institution would be run on the lines of London’s Royal Institution and the British Association for the Advancement of science.
Regarding the institution’s main intention Mahendralal said: “We want a different institution altogether. We want an institution which shall be for the instruction of the masses, where lectures on scientific subjects will be systematically delivered and not only illustrative experiments performed by the lecturer, but the audience should be invited and taught to perform themselves. And we wish that this institution be entirely under native management and control.”
The Hindu Patriot in its issue dated 3 January 1870 published an advertisement regarding the establishment of the institution.
Supporting Mahendralal’s work, Bankim Chandra wrote a lengthy article in the Bhadra issue (August-September issue) of his journal Bangadarshan (1873) where he appealed for generous public financial support for his work. He wrote:
“….The rich people of Bengal… some of them spend a lakh of rupees in a single day and waste lakhs during the marriage of their sons and daughters. The Bengali society is apathetic towards the cultivation of science. The rich people of Bengal should be generous and assist the Youth and industries of Bengal.”
Good response came from many eminent citizens of Calcutta. These included Justice Dwarakanath Mitra, Krishnadas Pal, Father Lafont, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Dr.Rajendralal Mitra, Keshab Chandra Sen, Jatindramohan Tagore, Abdul Latif, Jaykrishna Mukherjee, Pyarimohan Mukherjee, Ramesh Chandra Banerjee, and Gurudas Banerjee. Sir Richard Temple, the Lieutenant Governor of Bengal, also assured his help. Donations started flowing in.
The first contribution of Rs. 1,000 came from Jaykrishna Mukherjee and a subscription book was started on 24 January 1870. Others who contributed money were the Maharaja of Patiala , Maharani Swarnamayi, Maharaja of Cassimbazar , Kalikrishna Tagore, Raja Kamal Krishna Deb and Sri Rameshchandra Mitra. It was Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar who collected Rs. 2500 from zamindar Kalikrishna Tagore. With the help of Keshab Chandra Sen, Mahendralal received much financial help from the Maharaja of Cooch Behar. And in 1873, Mahendralal himself donated Rs. 1,000 for the noble cause.
On 29 July 1876 the Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science was inaugurated in a house taken on lease from the Government. It was situated at the junction of College Street and Bowbazar Street. The name “The Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science” was accepted at a meeting held earlier, on 15 January 1876. Dr. Mahendralal Sarkar was its Secretary from the beginning till his death. He gave regular lectures on subjects like electricity, magnetism, heat, light and sound.
Between 1878 and 1883 he delivered about 154 lectures on different subjects. Mahendralal continued to enlist support for the Association, especially from rich patients whom he cured. One such was the Maharajkumar of Vizianagram, and with his donation of Rs. 40,000, the Vizianagram Laboratory was established.
From the very beginning many renowned scientists were either speakers or research scholars in the Association. For instance Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose, Acharya Prafulla Chandra Ray, Dr. Chunilal Basu, Sri Ashutosh Mukhopadhyaya and others gave lectures on their respective subjects. Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose used to conduct practical classes also.
The Science Association developed further after the death of Mahendralal. In 1907 a high-ranking officer in the finance department of the government of India, Chandrashekhar Venkataraman, working at Calcutta , became a member of the Association and pursued scientific research during his leisure time. In 1917 the vice-chancellor of Calcutta University, Sir Ashutosh Mukhopadhyaya, made him “Fellow Professor” in the Science College.
Since the required equipment for research was not available in the Science College, Venkataraman continued his research in the Science Association. In 1930 he discovered new facts about the diffusion of light rays, for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize. In 1950-51 Professor Meghnad Saha shifted the The Science Association to a new building constructed on a land measuring 29 bighas.
Thus we see that Mahendralal Sarkar, a great philanthropist devoted his life to establish and promote scientific research and in spreading the homeopathic system of medicine. In all his efforts, service to humanity was the driving force
The writers are, respectively, Senior Faculty and Faculty of Neotia Institute of Technology, Management and Sciences.