Dr Kartar Singh Bawa

      A Tribute on his Birthday

    to An Eminent Sikh Scientist

Dr Kartar Singh Bawa (1886-1960)


        Dr Surjit Singh Bhatti

Dr Bawa Kartar Singh, a direct descendent of Guru Amar Das, the Third Sikh  Guru, was a great scientist, born on  the 17th of April 1886 at Amritsar.  His father Bawa Jivan Singh, a Member of the Indian Medical Service, was posted to Rangoon (Burma) where Bawa Kartar Singh had his early education.

In 1904 he went to England where he joined the Downing College of the University of Cambridge. In London, he earned with distinction Tripos in Natural Sciences in 1906. He received D.Sc. degree in 1921 from the University of Dublin, Ireland. His pioneering research in Stereochemistry in U.K. and in France led to the award of another D.Sc. in 1941 by the University of Cambridge (St. Andrews).

His work was published in reputed journals like:  Nature, Journal of the Chemical Society of England, Journal of the Indian Chemical Society, Proceedings of the Indian Academy of Science and Journal of Scientific and Industrial Research.  He also published a Research Monograph, with O W Pertie: Optical Activity and Chemical Constitution.

Research Activities of Dr Kartar Singh Bawa

He focused his work on Optical Activity of chemical compounds and mixtures, not well understood at that time. These include: Molecules with asymmetrical Nitrogen (N) atom, Relation of Optical Activity with Molecular Structure using Biochemical and Spectroscopic methods and the Laws of Optical Rotation.

Dr Bawa’s Studies in Optical Activity

Solutions of some chemicals (notably sugars) rotate the plane of polarization of light either to left, that is, counter-clockwise when facing the oncoming radiation (levorotatory) or to right (dextrorotatory).  These compounds have Optical Activity, which results from the interaction between molecules and light. It occurs in asymmetric molecules that exist in two different structural forms which are mirror images. The angle of rotation is related to the density and temperature of the solution as also to the wavelength of incident light.

Verification of Pasteur’s Law

Dr Bawa wanted to verify a reasoning given by Pasteur that dissymmetry of some crystals and component molecules might be reflected in their optical activity. A molecule that lacks any center or plane of symmetry is asymmetric but not vice-versa. Dissymmetric molecules may have a simple axis of symmetry but lack an axis of rotation. Both types are optically active.

Importance of these lies in the fact that they interact only with molecules of specific shapes. Most organic molecules, amino acids and organisms are dissymmetric. Response of an organism to a molecule depends upon how that molecule fits a site on its receptor.

He studied Naphthyl and Phenyl amino Camphors and their derivatives, used for making azo dyes and cosmetic oils. Azo dyes are used to treat textiles, leather and some food items. Oxymethylene (a thermoplastic) Camphors, Carboxylic acids and Borneols studied by him have medicinal value.

He also studied solutions of asymmetric compounds which normally have no net optical activity. Tartaric acid, thalidomide and ibuprofen are typical examples and are used in pharmaceuticals. They can be broken down into two optically active molecules.

UV Absorption Studies in Optically Active systems

Ultra-violet spectrum gives the intensity of light passing through a sample and compares it to intensity of original light. Molecules absorb in a wavelength range with a peak value, which is a parameter for comparison of different compounds. He studied the relation of absorption maxima and these wavelengths with chemical constitution.

His other work includes condensation studies of deoxy benzoin with aromatic aldehydes, determination of sucrose by double viscosity method, chemical examination of the fruit and kernel of Palmyra Palm, seeds, fats and oils and composition of fatty acids and glyceride structure in oils.

Professional Work

Dr Bawa worked as Professor and Head of Department of Chemistry at several Institutions where he carried out his research and published the results in 480 research papers. During 1910-1921, he worked at Government Colleges, at Dacca (now in Bangladesh) and then at Lahore (now in Pakistan). He was selected to the prestigious Indian Education Service (IES) in 1921. During 1921-1936, he worked at Ravenshaw College, Cuttack and till 1940 at Patna university.

From 1940 to 1946, he worked at Allahabad University and till 1947 at Panjab University, Chandigarh.  Finally, he retired in 1960 from Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi. From March to June 1960 he worked at Panjab University, Chandigarh, as a Professor Emeritus. 

He expired on the 16th of June 1960 at Chandigarh.

Recognitions and Responsibilities

Dr Bawa was a member of the Panel which was given the task of nominating outstanding scientists for the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. He was President of the Indian Science Congress, Founder-Fellow of the Indian Chemical Society and Fellow of the Institute of Chemistry of Great Britain and Ireland. He was also President of one of the five highest seats of Sikhism, Takhat Harmandar Sahib, at Patna Sahib, the Birthplace of Guru Gobind Singh, the Tenth Sikh Guru.

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