The most eminent award on the globe, the Nobel Prize, was instituted in the beginning of the 20th century. It was thought of and enshrined in a will, reportedly when a newspaper wrongly reported dynamite inventor Alfred Nobel’s death. Alfred was shocked at the epitaphs that flowed in, comparing him to a monster, and hence wanted to be remembered for something pleasanter.
Nobel was the owner of the largest manufacturer of dynamite sticks which had made wars deadlier (and also the infamous Bofors company which was much in the news in India). Creativity ran in the family and Alfred’s father Emmanuel invented the lathe that could strip logs of food into wafer-thin rolls which when pasted together formed plywood. To be honest, dynamite changed history in wars and the world scape in peace. Dams, roads and these megacities could have never been possible but for dynamite.
Since its institution in 1901, there have been 962 Nobel laureates. Though there are only a handful of homegrown laureates amongst them, Madras has a connection with some more.
There were two laureates who studied in Madras and had a strong familial connection. CV Raman (Physics, 1930) studied in the Presidency College. During that period, he had published a scientific paper on the ‘diffraction of light’ in a British journal. But then, surprisingly and possibly with an eye on economic advancement, Raman qualified for the Indian Financial Service and moved to Calcutta as Assistant Accountant General. Though poring over accounts he still was interested in physics. On a ship travelling to England, he made discoveries on the blue colour of the ocean using light diffraction — the subject he had been most interested in college. So confident was he of getting the Nobel that he booked travel tickets for the ceremony six months in advance of the announcement.
It’s said genius runs in the family and Raman’s nephew Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar (Physics, 1983), though born in Lahore studied in Hindu High School of Triplicane and the Presidency College. Many feel he was awarded the prize too late and even Chandrasekhar was upset that the Nobel citation mentioned only his earliest work almost half a century earlier.
Rudyard Kipling (Literature, 1907) though a noted Indophobe, in his ‘Song of the Cities’ wrote a poem on Madras:
Clive kissed me on the mouth and eyes and brow, Wonderful kisses, so that I became Crowned above Queens — a withered beldame now, Brooding on ancient fame.
One of the early laureates to get the prize, Ronald Ross (Medicine, 1902) worked for some time in Madras but made his momentous discovery on malaria in Secunderabad.
The first Asian to be awarded Nobel, Rabindranath Tagore (Literature, 1911) was a frequent visitor to the south. Kalki would write that most of Tagore’s meetings were ticketed and that he himself paid a Rs 5 to attend one. Tagore was a familiar face at that time because he modelled for Godrej hair oil and Bournvita. Tagore was fascinated with the Adyar Banyan tree and along with Arundale set up the National University under the auspices of the Theosophical Society. The venture, however, did not take off and he went back to concentrate on the Shanthi Niketan.
Winston Churchill (Literature, 1953) touched Madras on the way to other places in India as a journalist. However, he did nothing spectacular here as in Calcutta (a failed love affair) and Bangalore (unpaid club bills). But during World War time Churchill used to get his cigars from Trichy via Madras and there was a special officer in the Fort St George to procure them. Rumours of Churchill’s cigar assistant were suppressed in wartime censorship but there are reports that this government pay-drawing officer was in office long after the war was over and the British departed and was detected in an audit as late as 1960.
Dalai Lama (Peace, 1987) came on his first trip to Madras along with Chou En-Lai, the Chinese premier. The hostility was perceptible between the two and though they were to see the same places they went separately to them weeks apart. These included the Gemini studio and Mahabalipuram. He would soon defect to India and run a government of Tibet in exile.
Mother Teresa (Peace, 1979) is the only Nobel laureate to have a statue in Madras. In fact, she has a handful but the most prominent one is on St Thomas Mount.
Many scientists have visited Madras to lecture. Niels Bohr (Physics, 1922) has stayed and lectured at Ekamra Nivas, the Alladi House on Luz Church Road where a substantial part of the Indian constitution was also drafted.
Fleming (Medicine, 1954) the man who discovered penicillin came to Madras as a part of the World Health Organisation. He would with great interest visit King Institute, Guindy twice and lecture in medical colleges of Madras.
Linus Pauling (Chemistry, 1954; Peace, 1962), who got a Nobel for two disciplines, was very enamoured of peace. In 1967, he visited Madras. He would say: ‘Militarism is the cause of human suffering in two ways: directly, through the savagery of war itself, and indirectly, through the waste of the resources of the world’.
For those who regret that there is a drought of laureates out of Madras, it will be soothing to hear that the reputed Yale University in Connecticut, named after a Madras governor Elihu Yale and built partly on his contribution sent from here, has 63 Nobel laureates amongst its alumni and staff.
—The author is a historian