I have always been associated with many prominent figures eminent in other ways, but Dr. Bhatnagar was a special combination of many things, added to which was a tremendous energy with an enthusiasm to achieve things. The result was he left a record of achievement which was truly remarkable. I can truly say that but for Dr. Bhatnagar you could not have seen today the chain of national laboratories. – Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru
Dr. Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar was the Founder Director (and later first Director General) of Council of Scientific & Industrial Research (CSIR) and is largely remembered for having established various chemical laboratories in India. He is, infact, revered as the “father of research laboratories” in India. He established a total of twelve national laboratories such as Central Food Processing Technological Institute, Mysore, National Chemical Laboratory, Pune, the National Physical Laboratory, New Delhi, the National Metallurgical Laboratory, Jamshedpur, the Central Fuel Institute, Dhanbad, in addition to numerous other laboratories.
Dr. Bhatnagar played a significant role along with Homi Jehangir Bhabha, Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis, Vikram Ambalal Sarabhai and others in building of post independent S&T infrastructure and in the formulation of India’s science and technology policies. Dr. Bhatnagar concurrently held number of important position in the Government. He was the first Chairman of the University Grants Commission (UGC). He was Secretary of the Ministry of Education and Educational Adviser of Government. He was the first Secretary to Ministry of Natural Resource & Scientific Research and also the Secretary of Atomic Energy Commission. He played an instrument role in the establishment of the National Research Development Corporation (NRDC) of India. Dr. Bhatnagar also played an important role both in the constitution and deliberations of the Scientific Manpower Committee Report of 1948.
‘It may be pointed out that this was the first ever systematic assessment of the scientific manpower needs of the country in all aspects which served as an important policy document for the government to plan the post-independent S&T infrastructure.’
Dr. Bhatnagar was born on 21 February, 1894 at Bhera, in the district of Shapur in Punjab (now in Pakistan). His father Parmeshwari Sahai Bhatnagar, a distinguished graduate of the Panjab University, was the headmaster of a high school in Bhera. His mother Parbati Bhatnagar was the eldest daughter of Pearey Lal, who was a distinguished engineer.
Under the influence of his maternal grandfather the young Bhatnagar not only developed a taste for engineering and science but also became interested at a very early age in his grandfather’s instruments, geometry and algebra and in making mechanical toys. Dr. Bhatnagar’s interest in poetry and literature also came from his mother’s side.
Dr. Bhatnagar passed the Intermediate Examination of the Panjab University, in 1913, in the first division and joined Forman Christian College for the BSc degree. After taking the Bachelor’s degree, in 1916, he decided to take up his first formal employment as Demonstrator in the Physics and Chemistry Department of the Forman Christian College. Later he became the Senior Demonstrator in the Dyal Singh College. The employment, however, did not hinder Bhatnagar’s efforts in pursuing higher studies. He joined the MSc course in chemistry in the Forman Christian College. After completing his Master’s degree he went to England to complete his DSc from London University in 1921.
Upon returning to India, he immediately joined the newly established Banaras Hindu University (BHU) as a professor of chemistry, where he remained for three years. He wrote the ‘Kulgeet’, or University anthem.
Justice N.H. Bhagwati, the then Vice-Chancellor of BHU said – “Many of you perhaps do not know that besides being an eminent scientist, Professor Bhatnagar was a Hindi poet of repute and that during his stay in Banaras, he composed the ‘Kulgeet’ of the University. Professor Bhatnagar is remembered with reverence in this University and will continue to be so until this University exists.”
He then moved to Lahore as a Professor of Physical Chemistry and Director of University Chemical Laboratories of the University of the Punjab, where he worked till 1940. He had a reputation as a teacher. It was as a teacher that he himself was most happy.
His research interests included emulsions, colloids, and industrial chemistry, but his fundamental contributions were in the field of magneto-chemistry, the use of magnetism for the study of chemical reactions. His research contribution in the areas of magneto-chemistry and physical chemistry of emulsion were widely recognized. In 1928, he and K.N. Mathur jointly developed the Bhatnagar-Mathur Magnetic Interference Balance, which was one of the most sensitive instruments at the time for measuring magnetic properties. It was exhibited at the Royal Society Soiree in 1931 and it was marketed by Messers Adam Hilger and Co, London. He, jointly with K.N. Mathur, wrote “Physical Principles and Applications of Magnetochemistry” which is considered a standard work on the subject. Dr Bhatnagar also closely followed the work of C. V. Raman and Kariamanickam Srinivasa Krishnan at IACS on the Raman Effect, and in particular the work of Krishnan and his partner, Santilal Banerjee, were doing on the magnetism of small crystals.
Dr. Bhatnagar’s first industrial problem was developing the process for converting bagasse (peelings of sugarcane) into food-cake for cattle. This was done for Sir Ganga Ram, the Grand Old Man of Punjab. He also solved industrial problems for Delhi Cloth & General Mills, J.K. Mills Ltd. of Kanpur, Ganesh Flour Mills Ltd. of Layallapur, Tata Oil Mills Ltd. of Bombay, and Steel Brothers & Co. Ltd. of India. His major innovation was an improvement of the procedure for drilling crude oil. The Attock Oil Company at Rawalpindi (representative of Messers Steel Brothers & Co London) had confronted a peculiar problem, wherein the mud used for the drilling operation was hardened upon contact with saline water, thereby clogging the drill holes. Bhatnagar realised that this problem could be solved by colloidal chemistry. He added an Indian gum, which had the remarkable property of lowering the viscosity of the mud suspension and of increasing at the same time its stability against the flocculating action of electrolytes.
M/s Steel Brothers was so pleased that they offered Bhatnagar a sum of Rs. 1,500,000/- for research work on any subject related to petroleum. The company placed the fund through the university and it was used to establish the Department of Petroleum Research under the guidance of Dr. Bhatnagar. Investigations carried out under this collaborative scheme included deodorisation of waxes, increasing flame height of kerosene and utilisation of waste products in the vegetable oil and mineral oil industries. Recognizing the commercial success of the research, the company increased the fund, and extended the period from five years to ten. Dr. Bhatnagar persistently refused any personal monetary benefit from his research fundings, and instead advocated for strengthening research facilities at the university.
In 1934, Dr. Bhatnagar was elected as one of the first Fellows of the Indian Academy of Sciences. The following year, he was appointed as Foundation Fellow of the National Institute of Sciences of India. For his contributions to pure and applied chemistry, Bhatnagar was appointed as an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE), in 1936. The British government knighted him in the 1941 New Year Honours List for his contributions to the advancement of science. In 1942, Dr. Bhatnagar was appointed as Fellow of the Institute of Physics, and was also appointed as Fellow of the Royal Institute of Chemistry that year. In 1943, the Society of Chemical Industry, London, elected him as Honorary Member and later as Vice-President. He was also elected as Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS) in 1943.
In independent India, he was the President of the Indian Chemical Society, National Institute of Sciences of India and the Indian National Science Congress. He was awarded Padma Vibhushan in 1954 by the government of India. He died of a heart attack on 1 January 1955, at the age of 60.
In 1958, to honour his name and legacy, the Indian Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) instituted the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize for Science and Technology for scientists who have made significant contributions in various branches of science.