JOYKANTA SARMA writes about Radhikaram Dhekial Phookan, the first doctorate from Assam.
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One of the most illustrious sons of 19th century-Assam, Radhikaram Dhekial Phookan, believed to be the first doctorate from Assam, and probably India, is hardly known among the new generation, thanks primarily to the lack of adequate documentation. Radhikaram, the first son and third child of Assam’s renaissance leader Anandaram Dhekial Phukan (1829-1859), was born at Nowgong in 1854 and he died at Allahabad (Oudh), prematurely, at 42 years of age in 1896, leaving his European wife in London. Following his Ph.D. degree in Chemistry from the University of Heidelberg, Germany, where he stayed for nine years from 1886 to 1895, he was in search of a suitable job, preferably in India. Coming back to India, he was exploring the possibility of a position in Presidency College, Calcutta, and he even met the then Vice-Chancellor of the Calcutta University – Alfred Woodley Craft.

Researchers Ramesh Chandra Deka, Gaurangi Maitra and Ranjit Kumar Dev Goswami’s exhaustive essay on Phookan, published in the Indian Journal of Science (2019), noted that apparently a position was offered to him for Rs. 250 a month, which he declined as he felt that the amount was insufficient. Thereafter, Radhikaram visited Raja Rampal Singh at Allahabad (Oudh). Phookan’s cousin Jnanadabhiram Barooah wrote later that Rampal Singh had wanted to publish a newspaper to be managed by Phookan. But the essay by Deka, Maitra and Goswami indicates that Phookan might have tried his luck at the University of Allahabad.

His uncle, Gunabhiram Barooah, wrote that Phookan, after finishing his school education from Gowhatty Collegiate School, left for Calcutta for higher studies, but without completing his graduation, he sailed to London to study law. He is said to have joined the University of London and pursued law for six semesters. Phookan has stated in his own CV (in German) that he never appeared for the rest of his examinations owing to health issues. And according to his marriage certificate, he married Matilda Emily Sale Gresham in 1883.

The most important phase of Phookan’s life, however, was the Ph.D. course at the University of Heidelberg. He completed six semesters of course work. Thereafter, he was examined in Chemistry, Physics and Botany, and was awarded a Ph.D. degree in Chemistry in 1890. From 1889 to 1894, he was connected with the habilitation course, dissertation and publication.

Jnanadabhiram Barooah wrote that Phookan was a musician, too. He mainly sang in English, German, French and Italian. He could also sing Assamese naams and Bengali songs. Eminent yesteryear musicologist Laksmiram Barua wrote in the Assamese journal Banhi: “An illustrious son of Assam, Radhikaram Dhekial Phookan had been to England in his youth, learnt European (Western) music there, attaining its excellence and, at last, in great countries like Germany, France, etc., he was engaged as a music tutor for the children of the elites of those lands. It is a matter of great regret that no such person like him has been born in Assam so far.”

There was no obituary on him as such, except the article “Original Scientific Research in Bengal”, written by Sarat Chandra Mitra in 1896. The article documented Phookan’s Ph.D. and research in physical chemistry and stereo chemistry from Heidelberg. Mitra wrote, “Dr. Phookan came to India in the beginning of the year 1895. But alas! He was not destined to live long and promote the cause of original scientific research in this country. It is with great regret we have learnt that R.D. Phookan died about two months ago at Oudh. Possessed of high scientific attainments, he had a bright future before him and had he been spared, would have done much to enrich science by original contributions; but by his untimely death, a career of great promise has been cut off in the very prime of manhood.”

Deka, Maitra and Goswami have rightly said that unlike his contemporaries — Acharyya Sir Prafulla Chandra Ray and Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose, Phookan’s early demise robbed him of the chance to play a seminal role, just when Indians were able to claim some of the limelight in natural sciences.