Shankar Purushottam Agharkar (18 November to 2 September 1960) is known for his exemplary achievements in the field of botany. His fascinating life story is a village boy's determination to pursue science and research against all odds. He is credited with laying the first building blocks of such premier scientific institutions as the National Institute of Sciences now known as the Indian National Science Academy, the Indian Science Congress Association and the Maharashtra Association for Cultivation of Sciences (MACS) in Pune.
His intense zeal and enthusiasm prevailed despite such odds as the World War and teething problems including paucity of funds in running institutions. His name still lives on with the Agharkar Research Institute in Pune, as it does in the several species of plants and animals he discovered. He was born on November 1884, in Malvan, a remote village in Ratnagiri district of Maharashtra. His father served as an overseer in the Public Works Department and was frequently transferred. Agharkar accordingly changed schools ever so often.
A new place meant learning a new language. He even went to schools that hardly had teachers and if they did, they hardly taught. At least at one such school, Agharkar is known to have taken up the responsibility of teaching his classmates because the teachers would not do their job.
Eventually, Agharkar passed matriculation from the Government High School at Dharwar and joined the Elphinstone College, Bombay (now Mumbai) from where he passed the BA degree in first class with botany, zoology and geology as optional subjects. In 1909, after a MA degree, also from Elphinstone College, he joined as a lecturer in the biology department of the college.
He put his leisure time during holidays and between teaching sessions to good use and derived the passion for research. He ventured into the nearby Western Ghats exploring the diversity of plants and animals. During one such excursions, he found a new species of fresh water jellyfish. The jellyfish was until then known to occur only in African rivers. His findings were published in Nature in 1912. The joy from his output hooked him to research. He was helped by Dr Annadale, Superintendent of the Indian Museum at Calcutta (now Kolkata) on his collection, preservation and microscopic examination of plant and animal specimens. Even at his ripe old age, he would often join younger colleagues for botanical collections in the hills.
Agharkar's name has been immortalised in the names of many species of plants and animals he discovered. These included amongst others, the net-veined midges Philorus bioni Agharkar, not previously reported from India; two flowering plants (Dioscorea agharkarii and Musa agharkarii); one fungus (Mitrula agharkarii); and one centipede (Cryptorbyptops agharkarii). Agharkar also studied the flora of Nepal and Western Ghats and was a scholar on gymnosperms and angiosperms.
He was determined not to let adverse social and cultural restrictions interfere with his education. In 1914, he travelled to Germany for a two-year training course by overcoming the cultural restriction about a Hindu crossing the seas. He made the most of the opportunity to pursue research further. However, his sojourn abroad was highly disrupted. The First World War broke out just as he landed in Germany. He was imprisoned for three years and could secure his Ph.D from Berlin University only in 1919. However, despite the hurdles, Agharkar visited botanical gardens in Europe and England, including the famous Royal Botanical Garden at Kew, London. He collected rare plants from the European mountains and gifted this rich collection of materials to Calcutta University.
Agharkar returned to Calcutta University in 1920. His distinguished work as a botanist fetched him the Ghosh Professorship of botany at Calcutta University. His name was suggested by none other than C.V. Raman to Asutosh Mookerjee, then the Chairman of the Selection Committee.
He took this opportunity to serve the country in return. He transformed the Botany Department of Calcutta University into one of the finest plant sciences research institutions. His students found him a mine of information and were inspired to imbibe the much needed scientific attitude. Many top Indian botanists have had their initial training under Agharkar.
Moving onwards, he extended the benefit of his exemplary administrative and organisational skills to many scientific organisations across the country. This was a reflection of his nationalist fervour to place India on the high pedestal of scientific research world over.
Agharkar served as the Secretary of the Indian Science Congress Association for many years and shaped its destiny. It was because of his efforts that the London Overseas Scholarship was available to Indians. Till 1931, the scholarship was awarded only to British nationals, though funds for the same came from contributions by many members of Indian royalty. He fought to retain rare type-specimens from the Sibpur Herbarium, Kolkata, the British proposed to shift to the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, London. This valour prevented further erosion of invaluable herbaria now held by the Botanical Survey of India.
Agharkar retired from the Ghosh Professorship at Calcutta University in 1946. Typical of him, he did not rest. He moved to Mumbai to teach at the Master's Level at Bombay University. He was called by the Indian Law Society at Pune to head the institution they wished to launch to promote scientific research in the city. The Maharashtra Association for the Cultivation of Science (MACS) in Pune was then born with Agharkar as its Founder-Director. He was also the Head of the Department of Botany. The MACS experienced several teething troubles including flow of funds. Agharkar's office did not have a fan, because he considered it a luxury. He would often spend his own money for the cause of the Institute. His dedication, simplicity and work ethic set him as an example for many to follow. He transformed MACS into a centre of research excellence. He worked with the Chief Palynologist of the Oil and Fuel Commission on the origin of Bengal flora.
With advancing age his enthusiasm for work and the call of duty could not face up to the cancer that afflicted him. In 1956, he had to undergo surgery. He retired from the Institute in 1960 because of his failing health. Eventually, Agharkar quietly prepared his will, donating to a trust in favour of the MACS all but bare necessities for his wife. Despite these challenges, he continued to visit MACS laboratories till just a few days before his death; to enquire about progress of research projects. Shankar Purushottam Agharkar breathed his last on 2 September 1960. On 10 September 1992, in a befitting tribute to this great soul who nurtured the Institute till the last moment of his life, the MACS renamed the Institute as the 'Agharkar Research Institute'.
Reproduced with permission from Vigyan Prasar