Sir Jagadis Chandra Bose

Sir Jagadis Chandra Bose (1858-1937) was an Indian physicist and plant physiologist who did pioneering work in the measurement of plant growth and the responsiveness of plants to external stimuli.

The life and scientific career of Jagadis Chandra Bose are rooted in the social ferment and the vital nationalism that made Bengal the intellectual center of India in the 19th century. He was born on Nov. 30, 1858, at Mymensingh (now in East Bengal), where his father was a deputy magistrate. The elder Bose sent Jagadis to the traditional village school to give him a grounding in Indian culture and then to St. Xavier's school and college in Calcutta, where a Jesuit teacher encouraged his scientific interests.

At great financial hardship to the family, Bose went to the University of London in 1880 to study medicine; after a year he transferred to Cambridge to study science. He received degrees from Cambridge in 1884 and from London in 1885. His teachers, including the famous physicist Lord Rayleigh, recognized his brilliance and recommended him to high British officials in India for employment. Bose became professor of physics at Presidency College, Calcutta. Although he encountered some discrimination as the first Indian to hold the post, within a few years he was acknowledged as a scientist of a caliber unknown before in India. At that time there was virtually no provision for scientific research in Indian universities, so his achievements were all the more extraordinary. In 1887 he married a Madras medical student, Abala Das, who shared in her husband's scientific interests.

Bose's first experiments, which concerned the transmission of electrical energy, were extensions of the work of such pioneers as James Clerk Maxwell and Heinrich Rudolph Hertz. This work led Bose to an interest in the possibilities of radio communication, and some of his experiments paralleled, if they did not actually precede, those of Guglielmo Marconi. Bose is said to have demonstrated radio transmission in Calcutta in 1895.


Researches in Plant Life

Bose then turned to the work that brought him his greatest fame: the measurement of the responses of plants to such stimuli as light, sound, touch, and electricity. His research convinced him that there were no clear-cut boundaries between the nervous systems of plants and of animals. To carry out his experiments, he invented the crescograph, an instrument capable of magnifying the movements of growth in plants 10 million times.

Bose's experiments brought him world fame while he was still a young man, and he made many lecture tours to the universities of Europe and America. The British government knighted him in 1916, the year after his retirement from Presidency College. The validity of his experiments was often attacked, partly on the basis of his experimental techniques, but more often because of the mystical, religious implications that he found in his research, as when he claimed that plants, like animals, adjusted to change through "inherited memory of the past." He insisted that not only could no line be drawn between plants and animals but that his researches had shown there was no line between living and nonliving matter. He felt that he had substantiated in the laboratory the Hindu religious belief that the whole universe was an aspect of the Eternal One.

Bose was deeply patriotic, and his encouragement of research in the universities and in the Bose Research Institute, which he founded in Calcutta in 1917, was a reflection of his conviction that Indians must add scientific skills to their great religious tradition. He succeeded in communicating his own enthusiasm and excitement to a new generation of students, who carried on his work. He died on Nov. 23, 1937.


Further Reading on Sir Jagadis Chandra Bose

The most interesting biography of Bose is Patrick Geddes, The Life and Work of Sir Jagadis C. Bose (1920). Geddes, a town planner and social scientist, examined Bose's life in the context of the social changes of that time. Sir Jagadish Chunder Bose: His Life, Discoveries and Writings (1921) is useful for examples of Bose's writings. Monoranjon Gupta, Jagadishchandra Bose: A Biography (1964), corrects some factual errors in Geddes's work, gives a fuller account of Bose's life, and lists Bose's numerous publications.

Additional Biography Sources

Nandy, Ashis, Alternative sciences: creativity and authenticity in two Indian scientists, New Delhi: Allied, 1980.