The Little-known Pioneering Sikh Scientist, Mystic Poet & A Man of Literature, Professor (Dr) Puran Singh (1881-1931)


(Dr) Surjit Singh Bhatti, Formerly Professor & Head Physics, Dean, Faculty of Sciences, Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar(India)                    

Very few know today that a century ago an Indian Sikh scholar had done pioneering research in Industrial Chemistry and put the country’s name on the world map in modern science. Professor (Dr) Puran Singh was an amalgam of Sikhi, Science and Spirituality. A great writer and a poet, he was called Tagore of Punjab.

Professor Puran Singh – The Sixth River of Punjab

Born on 17th of February 1881 in Abbottabad, now in Pakistan, he lived a very magnificent  life and expired in Dehradun, in India, on the 31st of March 1931. Even in this short life span, his splendid contributions to Science and Society covered him with glory.  He believed that both Science and Spirituality constitute a never-ending quest for Truth. Nothing could be more sacred than these two. For scientific research he chose forests, nearest to spiritual rejuvenation, that provide herbal and other plants with an immense potential of useful oils.  

After his early education in 1897 he received a scholarship for further studies in Japan. He graduated from the University of Tokyo in Industrial Chemistry in 1903. He specialized in the study of Pharmaceutical Sciences and carried out research work in Japan in the field of Essential and Industrial oils.

Milestones in the Life of Dr Puran Singh

In 1904, Professor (Dr) Puran Singh was appointed Principal of the Diamond Jubilee Technical Institute at Lahore (now in Pakistan). In 1907, he became Imperial Research Chemist at the Forest Research Institute (FRI), Dehradun. In 1918, after retirement, he was given barren land at Gwalior (in Madhya Pradesh in India) by Maharaja Scindia for research on Essential oils. He turned the land into productive and fertile fields of Rosha Grass, Khus and Eucalyptus. These yielded precious products which were accepted in India, Europe and North America.

Aromatic Herbal Oils are volatile in nature and hydrophobic (tending to repel water and failing to mix with it). These oils were used in medicines and in industries earlier too but were not fully understood. Physicians who used them had only vague ideas of their efficacy.  Appropriately, Dr Puran Singh is called the Chemist of Forest Products and the Father of Herbal Research in India.

Scientific Accomplishments of Professor Puran Singh

Dr Puran Singh was the first scientist to research the following forest products and to extract them on large scale.

Essential oils, used in pharmaceuticals, are extracted from leaves, flowers and other parts of plants and have  characteristic scents.  In aromatherapy, they are inhaled or applied on skin to treat several ailments. Examples are: Oils of Lavender, Rosemary, Ruby Grapefruit, Lemon, Cinnamon, Clary sage, Tea tree and Eucalyptus.   

Industrial oils, also extracted from plants, are used in industries, in addition to the common petroleum-based oils. Obtained from certain trees abundantly found in forests these are also produced from some  crops. For instance, Canola, Rapeseed and Soya crops are cultivated in some countries for human consumption as well as for preparation of Biodiesel and many other industrial chemicals.

Isolation and Analysis of the Essential and Industrial Oils from Chemical Forest Products (CFP) required Instruments and Equipment which were not available in India at that time. Nor could these be easily imported then. Dr Puran Singh had to design and construct all these instruments himself. He went to forests, collected herbs and other materials, obtained their extracts and accurately estimated their oil percentage and quality.

His findings were published mostly in two chemical research journals: Journal of Chemical Society of India and Indian Forester, besides some others.

Some Forest Products studied by Professor Puran Singh

Palmarosa ( Geranium) is a very useful rose-scented herb that gives an antifungal, antiseptic, antibacterial and antipyretic oil used for the treatment of Anorexia (lack or loss of appetite for food), Ascaris (disease caused by intestinal worms) and Bronchitis (inflammation of the airways in lungs). It fights viral infections as it inhibits duplication of the virus and eliminates it.

Dealing with viruses is not easy and is very different from killing bacteria. Viruses develop tough protective coatings around themselves, called cysts. Remaining dormant within the cyst until it opens-up, the virus comes out of its dormancy and starts multiplying. It is at this stage that Palmarosa oil comes to the patient’s rescue.

It protects from septic that may occur in urinary tracts, bladder, urethra, colon and kidneys. It is also good at curing colitis (inflammation of the inner lining of the colon) and bacterial infections on the skin, armpits, head, eyebrows, eyelids and ears. Its oil promotes the growth of cells and recycling of the cellular matter. Thus, it helps repair the damages due to aging and strengthens the immune system. It also stimulates the secretion of digestive juices and aids the absorption of nutrients from food.                                     

Thymol extract is used as a stabilizer in several pharmaceuticals for treatment of infections due to Salmonella typhimurium (bacteria found in intestines), cause of typhoid fever and Streptococcus pyogenes, cause of scarlet and rheumatic fevers, among others. It is used to treat ringworm (fungal skin infection) and gingivitis (a disease in which the gums often bleed on brushing the teeth). It is also used as a safe pesticide and as a food preservative and for reducing the contaminants on which bacteria and fungus feed.

Tannins are used for tanning leather and in making inks and colors for fabric printing. These are found in the bark, galls and leaves of oak trees and are also in legume forages, nuts, tea leaves, dark chocolates and fruit skins. Tannins bind and precipitate proteins, amino acids and alkaloids (alkaline like morphine, caffeine and quinine).  Being antioxidants, these are used in some food items.

Turpentine oil, obtained from the resins of pine trees by distillation, is used as a solvent and for organic synthesis. It is useful in treating rheumatic and neural disorders, muscle pain and bronchial diseases.

Camphor is obtained from the camphor tree by distillation of its bark and wood. It is also obtained from turpentine oil and relieves pain.

Sandalwood oil, from the sandalwood tree, has been found to be an antiseptic and astringent (for reducing bleeding). It finds extensive use in treatment of urinary and genital disorders and to treat skin diseases.

Lemon oil is yet another Essential oil that can kill bacteria such as Staphylococcus aureus and E. coli. and address conditions like stress, depression and varicose veins.

Wintergreen oil is a similar Essential oil made by steam processing of the leaves of the Wintergreen tree, also called Evergreen. It can cure backache or lumbago, sciatica, muscle pain, sprains and arthritis.

Fennels are obtained from flowering plant species, that belong to carrot family, and are considered good for treatment of heart problems. These contain significant amounts of fiber, potassium, folate, vitamins C and B-6 and phytonutrients but no cholesterol. They are good for flushing out toxins from the body and purifying blood. Its seeds are useful for gastric problems and diabetes.

Important New Discoveries by Professor Puran Singh

Dr Puran Singh discovered a new method for purification of Sugar without the use of the offensive Bone Charcoal, which was being used earlier.  This was offensive to the sugar industry workers because it was obtained from the bones of dead animals. Also, he discovered the use of Nickel Hydroxide for estimation of tannins instead of the obnoxious animal hide powder, in use earlier. Both discoveries were welcomed by the people and changed these industries forever. Earlier methods were hurting their religious sentiments.

Influences on the Life of Dr Puran Singh

Lives and teachings of all Sikh Gurus, especially the Tenth Master, Guru Gobind Singh Ji (1666-1708), who was Himself a great Divine Poet, influenced him the most. Mystical poetry of Amritsar-based Sikh Philosopher Bhai Vir Singh (1872-1957) changed him completely when they met in 1912. Japanese Art, Culture, Language, Literature, Philosophy and Buddhist Religion impressed Professor Puran Singh and he briefly became a monk (Bhikshu) and adopted the Japanese ethos and aesthetics. However, he became a staunch Sikh due to the influence of his life-long friend Bhai Vir Singh.

Poetry and Philosophy of the famous American Poet and Journalist Walter Walt Whitman (1819-1892) had a deep imprint on his works. Nobel Laureates: Physicist, Sir C. V. Raman and Poet, Sir Rabindra Nath Tagore, were among the friends who discussed with him the scientific and literary developments. Sanyasi Swami Ram Tirath and the famous Scholar Sir Muhammad Iqbal were also his close friends. 

Professor Puran Singh’s Literary work  

He was an accomplished poet. Some of his famous poems are: The Vina Players, The Wandering Minstrel, The Burning Candles, The Rose of Kashmir, The Himalayan Pines, An Afternoon with Self and Sisters of the Spinning Wheel. He wrote very thought-provoking essays and books on various subjects which show the influence of Sikhism on him. He was not only a scientist dedicated to benefits of the people using products of nature but also a lover of literature.  His works include: The Story of Swami Rama, On the Path of Life, Walt Whitman and the Sikh Inspiration, Vision of Guru Gobind Singh and Bhai Karam Singh. He also wrote wonderful books in Punjabi, including Khule Lekh, Khule Ghund, Khule Asmaani Rang and Khule Maidan.

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