Prafulla Chandra Ray having completed his doctoral studies from Edinburgh University, returned to India in August 1888, after six years of absence.
On his return, Ray was anxious to get an appointment in the Bengal Education Department as a Professor of Chemistry. In his opinion Chemistry was obtaining slow recognition as an important branch of study in Indian colleges, but the Presidency College was the only institution where systematic lectures along with experiments were given. Private colleges were in existence but they were few in number and with their resources being limited they could not afford to open Science departments. However, students from these colleges were allowed to attend the lectures at the Presidency College on payment of nominal fee. In the eighties, Chemistry had made significant progress and it was realised that the mere delivery of elementary courses of lectures would not be adequate to cope up with the requirements and that special arrangements had to be made for practical and laboratory teaching. On these grounds, Alexander Pedler, the principal of the Presidency College had written to the Director of Public Instruction to move the Bengal government for the sanction of an additional Professor.
It was at this psychological moment that Ray returned from Edinburgh as an applicant for the post. For about an year from August 1888 to the end of June 1889, Ray was without an occupation and was uncomfortable. Ray felt that a chemist without his laboratory was like “Samson without his locks”. During this period he stayed with Dr.and Mrs.
Jagadish Chandra Bose, spending his time reading chemical literature and botanising. Ray collected and identified several plants all around Calcutta with the aid of Roxburgh’s Flora Indica and Hooker’s Genera Plantarum. At long last an additional chair of Chemistry was added at Presidency College and Ray was posted as assistant professor on a pay of Rs 250/- per month. Ray took up his duties at the commencement of the session in July 1889. It was indeed a relief to him as work, laboratory work, had been the main sustenance of his life and he felt a strong hunger for it.
Ray was of the opinion that to be a successful teacher, especially of junior students, who were just commencing a course in elementary Chemistry, it was essential that one should have a neat hand in conducting experiments and that these should be arranged in a manner so that the lectures are interesting and understandable. He believed it was absolutely essential for a lecturer in Chemistry that he should have undergone through a probationary stage as a class-assistant. Ray’s ambition was to qualify himself as a successful lecturer and with this thought he put his head down and got to work. He went through repeated rehearsals of class-experiments and within a short period of time shook his nervousness and when the session began he was delighted that he was equal to the task.
As far as laboratory work and conduction of practical classes was concerned Ray wasn’t in much need of guidance as he had a fair amount of experience. The first three months were arduous but enjoyable and he entered this new sphere of his life with great zeal. Ray did not trust himself to mere delivery, and would often write out the substance of his lecture beforehand. Eventually he felt as comfortable as a fish in water. After having acquired some experience as a teacher and getting accustomed to delivering lectures illustrated with experiments, Ray began to gradually devote his spare time to research work.
The adulteration of food stuffs was becoming an issue. Ghee (clarified butter) and mustard oil were practically the only sources of fat in the dietary intake of people of Bengal and these articles being sold in the markets were far from pure. It was not an easy task to detect by chemical analysis the adulterants used and their percentages. Ray undertook a thorough examination in this regard. He procured samples of these food articles from the most reliable sources and also had them prepared in his own supervision. This work involved a great deal of effort and it kept him busy for three years, the results of which were published in the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal for 1894, entitled – Chemical Examination of Certain Indian Foodstuffs: Part I – The Fats and Oils.Shortly after beginning his work at Presidency College, Ray was troubled by the poverty of Bengali literature on the scientific side and he seriously entertained the idea of writing a series of primers on Chemistry, Zoology and Botany. He naturally took up Chemistry first but gave up after making some progress with it.
Ray believed that studies about nature would offer better attraction to the young minds and the animal and plant kingdoms offered a lot of scope in this direction. Stories of animals, their habits, peculiarities would fascinate the imagination of the young in his opinion. With such thoughts, Ray wrote a Primer of Zoology in Bengali with the knowledge of this science gathered during the preparation of the B.Sc.
course immensely helpful. This knowledge was further supplemented by many standard works on the subject. Ray frequented the Zoological Gardens, in order to observe the habitat of animals and often visited the Natural History Section of the Indian Museum. He also dissected a few specimens through the help of his friends Nilratan Sarkar and Prankrishna Acharya, who had just taken their medical degrees.
Around 1891-92, another matter began to seriously occupy Ray’s thoughts. The educated youth, the moment they came out of colleges, were on the lookout for a job under the Government or in a European mercantile firm.