Vigyan Prasar Science Portal
For anything and everything on science from India
Home
Father Eugene Lafont
A Selfless Missionary of Science in India
 
 
 
Dr Subodh Mahanti

 

 

Indeed in addition to his sterling qualities as an educationist, Father Lafont was a born popular scientific lecturer, and had a peculiar facility for putting dry facts in a popular way and an equal facility for making his lectures interesting by experimental illustration.

Nature, May 14, 1908, p.35

 



The most significant aspect of Lafont’s personality was that he belonged to religion and tried to synthesise science with religion. God and God’s positive works, according to him, are inseparable, since truth of one kind cannot be basically opposed to another kind. We would emphasise that his synthetic view was widely shared by the contemporary intellectuals.

Arun Kumar Biswas in his book, Father Eugene Lafont of St. Xavier’s College, Kolkata and the Contemporary Science Movement, The Asiatic Society, Kolkata, 2001.

All the pupils of Father Lafont, so long Professor of Physics in that college (St Xavier’s), recall his teaching influence as truly educative. His wealth of experiments and vivid clearness of exposition of them, made his class the most interesting in the college…”

Patrick Geddes in his book, An Indian Pioneer of Science:
The Life and Work of Sir Jagadish C Bose. Longmans, Green and Co, 1920.

Though a Catholic and Priest, I hail with delight and pursue with love any advance of true science, the only thing that frightens me being the pretended discoveries of men who are not satisfied with facts, but put in their stead, and erect into scientific dogmas, the ill-digested lucubrations of their imagination.

Father Eugene Lafont


Father Eugene Lafont occupies a unique place in the history of modern science in India. Father Lafont came to Kolkata (then Calcutta) in 1864 at the age of thirty-four. Father Lafont joined the St Xavier’s College on December 07, 1865 and he was associated with it for 43 years (1865-1908). At St. Xavier’s Father Lafont ‘taught science, preached science (alongwith religion of course) and practised science’. He taught here Jagadis Chandra Bose, regarded as the first scientist in modern India and many other illustrious students. Under the guidance of Father Lafont, St. Xavier’s College established meteorological and astronomical observatories and a physical laboratory. Father Lafont played an instrumental role in persuading the Calcutta University in initiating undergraduate course in science. He, alongwith Mahendra Lal Sircar, was the co-founder of the Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science. The Association, which was established in 1876, was the first institution of scientific research to be established and managed by the natives of India. Father Lafont is rightly considered as one of the architects of modern Indian science. “Lafont and Mahendralal were genuine path-finders in the Indian science movement of the `nationalist’ hue as contrasted with `colonial’ variety. Quite fittingly, they were called the twin fathers of modern science in India. J. C. Bose, C. V. Raman etc. were deeply indebted to their leadership,” writes Arun Kumar Biswas. Lafont established meteorological and astronomical observatories at St. Xavier’s College. It was his public popular scientific lecturecum-demonstrations in which he excelled over all his other activities. His first popular scientific demonstration to the public of Kolkata on September 18, 1868 and he continued to lecture till his death.

Father Lafont was a man of religion but he did not find any contradiction in dedicating his life for teaching and ‘preaching’ science. He also practiced religion with equal zeal. Father Lafont vehemently opposed the idea that science and religion cannot go together. He believed that truth of one kind cannot be opposed to truth of another kind. He put mind or soul at higher pedestal than matter. Father Lafont advocated a balanced commitment for science and religion. Along with teaching and giving popular science lectures, Father Lafont continued his theological studies. His sermons at St. Thomas Church, where he was the Vicar, were so popular that they even attracted non-Catholics as well

Father Lafont was born at Mons, a little town in the southern-most part of Belgium, on March 26, 1837. His father Pierre Lafont was an army officer. His early education was at St. Barbara’s College at Ghent (or Gent), where his father was posted. He joined the Society of Jesus in December 1854. After receiving the necessary training of the Order, Father Lafont joined the Namur College for studying Philosophy and Natural Sciences. Father Depelchin, who later established the St. Xavier’s College at Kolkata in 1860, was the minister of the Namur College. Within five years of the establishment of St. Xavier’s College, Father Depelchin requested for the services of Father Lafont for teaching physics. Father Lafont arrived at the St. Xavier’s College on December 07, 1865. His first assignment was to teach the 5th year or Pre-entrance class of the school. When in 1867, the BA class was opened at St. Xavier’s Father lafont was promoted from the school department to take charge of the Natural Philosophy division in the college. He also taught Mental and Moral Philosophy. In 1871 Father Lafont became the Rector of the St. Xavier’s.

Father Lafont is often referred to as the teacher of the first scientist in modern India, Jagadis Chandra Bose. It was Father Lafont who inspired Bose in experimental science. Thus Patrick Geddes, the biographer of Bose, wrote: “…and his (Father Lafont’s) patient skill, his subtelity, as well as brilliance of experimentation, were appreciated by this young student above all. Here was Bose’s first discipline towards that combination of intellectual lucidity with wealth of experimental device and resource by which he has all the more fully represented and honoured his old master by surpassing him.” Since the beginning Father Lafont thought very high of Bose. In a certificate given to Jagadis Chandra Bose on April 12, 1880 Father Lafont wrote: “I certify that Baboo Jagadis Chunder Bose B.A. was my pupil in Physical Science for a period of four years and gave some proof of very great proficiency in that branch of study. I consider him to be one of the best students we had in our College Department.” Father Lafont believed that Bose had a priority over Marconi in inventing wireless transmission. This is clear from a letter he wrote to Bose sometime in August 1897. Lafont wrote: “I would like to give a public lecture at St. Xavier’s College Hall on “Telegraphy Without Wires”, but as the instruments you so kindly gave me are not in working order and as I would like to take this opportunity to vindicate your rights to priority over Marconi, would you assist me in my lecture with your presence and work your own instruments. Let me know as soon as possible as I intend inviting the Lieutenant Governor…” Bose always gratefully remembered his extraordinary teacher.

Father Lafont was not a creative research scientist. But then he was something more than a popular science lecturer. Thus Arun Kumar Biswas wrote: “The manner with which Lafont grasped and interpreted the latest scientific discoveries spoke of his command over the frontiers of science. The high proficiency which he attained in the study of physics gives evidence that had he remained in Europe, he would have won a very conspicuous place in the world of Science. He however devoted himself to the cause of Bengal Mission as `the needs of Bengal were many”’. His contribution to the development of a scientific ethos in the country was very significant. He expanded the scientific emphasis of the St. Xavier’s College. At his request priests `with scientific learning’ were sent to Kolkata from Belgium. He established a fully equipped laboratory at the college. He built this laboratory largely based on contributions received by him and entry fees for attending his lectures. Commenting on the laboratory the house magazine of the college, The Xaverian (Vol. 1, No.2. 1904, p.61) wrote: “...The first thing that strikes the visitor on entering the Physical Science Laboratory, apart from the vast proportions of the hall, is the magnificent array of almirahs all filled with instruments, that surround the place, and increase in number, dimensions and importance as he proceeds towards the further end of the room. This is the place for mute astonishment…As regards the scientific equipment, the laboratory is fully up to date, and to quote, the words of the inspectors appointed by the University of Calcutta: “Its collection of apparatus…is far above the actual requirements of the ordinary University courses.”

In 1875, he built a small astronomical observatory in the college. This created lot of interest among the people about scientific matter. It was the Italian astronomer Pietro Tacchini (1838-1905), who influenced Father Lafont to build the observatory. Tacchini came to India as the leader of the Italian expedition to observe the transit of Venus in December 1874. The other members of the expedition team were the Jesuit Angelo Secchi (1818-78), director of the Observatory of the Collegio Romano; Alessandro Dorna (1825- 86) of the Observatory of Turin and Antonio Abetti (1846-1928) of the Observatory of Padua. At the instance of F. Lamouroux, Italian Consul of Calcutta, Tacchini selected Madhupur as their site of observation. Lamouroux had consulted Lafont while selecting observation station for Tacchini. Lsafont was also invited to join the expedition. As a member of the expedition team, Lafont, alongwith Prof. Dorna, carried out visual observations. The spectroscopic observations were carried out by Prof. Tacchini and Abetti. Though the weather hindered the observations, Prof. Tacchini’s team could obtain important results. Father Lafont wrote an interesting account of the expedition and got it published. Here we quote from Father Lafont’s account:

“As the time approached when the first contact was expected, the clouds gathered more numerous around the sun, as if determined to hide it, and we had great difficulty in securing a view of its bright edge through the openings left between these obnoxious screens. However, Prof. Dorna and myself succeeded in taking down with tolerable accuracy the two first contacts. Those who understand the spectroscopic method must have guessed already that our talented chief and his companion could not have seen these two first phases of the transit, since absolute purity of the atmosphere is a necessary condition of success in these delicate researches. Fortunately, soon after, the sky gradually became clearer, and during the transit Prof. Tacchini discovered in the atmosphere of Venus unmistakable the sign vapour of water. This result, corroborated by Prof. Abetti, is in itself a very valuable addition to our knowledge of the planet. Encouraged by this unforeseen discovery and the better state of the atmosphere, we all resumed our places at the eye-piece of our instruments, and had the great satisfaction of catching, all of this time, the two last contacts. Here again, the ordinary method of observation gave us times agreeing very closely, whilst our companions of the spectroscope had the good fortune of establishing upon experimental proofs the great superiority of the spectroscopic method over all others, in determining the real time of contact, to a small fraction of a second, with ease and certainty. The main object of this mission is therefore accomplished.”

Tacchini did not leave India immediately after the observation of the transit of Venus. This is because he had been invited by the Royal Astronomical Society of London to join the planned expedition for the observation of the total solar eclipse to be visible from the Nicober Isles. During his stay in India, Tacchini decided to give shape to long thought out research project. Tacchini had founded the Italian Spectroscopists’ Society (Societa degil Spettroscopisti Italiani) in 1871. This happened to be first scientific society specifically devoted to astronomical spectroscopy or physical astronomy. Other founding members of the society were Secchi, Giuseppe Lorenzoni, Lorenzo Respighi (1824-1889) and Arminio Nobile (1838-97). The first major aim of the society was to examine and study solar features in a continuous way. For this they needed an observatory in another country. Tacchini realized that an observatory in India would serve their purpose very well. To quote Tacchini: “During our stay in Muddapur (…) we experienced the most favourable climatic conditions to carry out a series of spectroscopic observations of solar limb in a season in which we are seldom successful in Palermo and in other Italian towns. We recall, then, the necessity already expressed in preceding years by me and by Secchi, of having in another country an observatory which could be used to, complement the series of our observations, as during the winter season they are suspended in our observatories, especially from November to March.”

In July 1875 Lafont wrote To Tacchini: “I am pleased to announce to you that our observatory is almost completed (…). Mr. Merz had already written to me and he is busy building a 7-inch Equatorial with parallactic mounting for 12,500 francs. It will not be finished before eighteen months. I am going to receive a 10-prism spectroscopes which I will use with a small 3-inch telescope of Steinheil, while waiting for the installation of my grand instrument.”

Tacchini announced the creation of the spectroscopic observatory in Kolkata to the scientific community: “The eminent father Lafont, Director of St. Xavier’s College in Calcutta, after observing the chromosphere and the solar prominences with our instruments in Madhupur, and seeing the practical way to execute the spectroscopic observations of the Sun at our Station, has accepted the proposal to build an Observatory in Calcutta in his College with aim of carrying out there regular solar observations, which (…) could fill the inevitable gaps of our Observatories because of the too often overcast sky in (winter) months (…) The station is almost complete….the new Calcutta Observatory will be able to give the best results under the active direction of Lafont, to whom our colleagues will be very grateful for remedying, with his ability and commitment, a long complained snag.”

To see wherefrom the money came from for building the observatory we quote from The Xaverian: “Professor Tacchini, the Italian astronomer, had been so impressed during his short visit (December 1874) to India by the value of solar observations in our cloudless sky that he persuaded Father Lafont to erect a spectro-telescope at St. Xavier’s. An appeal was made for funds and Sir Richard Temple, the Lieutenant Governor, personally interested himself in the matter. He paid an afternoon visit to the college…By the end of the month, the Government of Bengal sanctioned a grant of Rs.5000 towards the erection of the observatory, on condition that a like sum be gathered by private subscription before the end of March. The money was soon forthcoming…Towards the end of June 1875, the Observatory was near completion, and the estimated cost was Rs. 9000. With the instruments ordered out from Munich and London, it was calculated that the total expenditure would come to Rs. 15,900. The Government increased the original grant by Rs.2000, and the commercial community of Calcutta generously made up the remainder. In all, Father Lafont collected Rs. 21000. Asiatic Society of Bengal had sanctioned a token grant towards this project.” The famous international journal, Nature, also took note of the development. A report signed by the chemist Raphael Medola (1849-1915) observed: “Now that the subject of solar observation in India is likely to occupy the attention of the scientific public, the following details of the Solar Observatory now in progress of construction at Calcutta may be of interest to readers of NATURE. The suggestion emanated in the first plan from the well-known Italian astronomer and spectroscopist, Prof.Tacchini, who was sent by the Italian Government as director of the Transit of Venus’ Expedition. The idea thus put forth was at once taken up by Pere Lafont, the Principal of St. Xavier’s College…The Italian Transit of Venus’ Expedition has thus been the means of sowing seeds which, finding themselves in a soil most favourable for development, are calculated but no very distant period to bear fruit of the greatest value to science (…) It is only by systematic observations of this kind carried on by public enterprise, that we can never hope to direct cyclical changes in the sun’s composition and constitution…”

The Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science was established in 1876 with the object “to enable the Natives of India to cultivate Science in all its departments with a view to its advancement by original research, and (as it will necessarily follow) with a view to its varied applications to the arts and comforts of life.” It was Mahendra Lal Sircar who first proposed the creation of such an institution for the creation of mass interest in science and for the training of scientists for undertaking original research. It was working in this institution that C. V. Raman brought the Nobel Prize in science to India. Father Lafont not only lent his wholehearted support to Sircar’s scheme but also helped the Association in its development in many ways. The provisional committee appointed for drawing up a plan for the organization of the Association was chaired by Father Lafont. The Association was finally established on January15, 1876. The teaching work of the Association started shortly after its inception with the appointment of Father Lafont and Dr. Sircar as honorary lectures in Physics and of Dr. Kanai Lal Dey as an honorary lecturer in chemistry. It was Father Lafont who started his course on August 24, 1876. He lectured on light, Genera Physics and Sound. On an average he gave 20 to 30 lectures per year. He continued to give regular lecture at the Association till 1893. However, he continued to give popular science lecture at the Association off and on and he he also continued to participate in its annual meetings. His last lecture at the Association was on November 21, 1907. The occasion was the 30th Annual General Body meeting of the Association. In his lecture he supported the idea that the Association should move away from teaching and concentrate on original research. He urged the students ‘to develop all their faculties in a complete and harmonious manner.’ Father Lafont said: “Let us beware of accepting all theories and mere working hypotheses, as absolute truths. Even our cherished Atomic Theory, so fruitful in excellent results, might have to give way for a new conception of Matter. The discoveries about Radium and other radiant substances must make us very cautious in assuming that we are already in possession of final certainty about the constitution of Matter, the Nature in general. It is a great thing to learn how to say: “I do not know”, instead of pretending rashly that we know all about everything.” In this meeting of the Association, the last one attended by Father Lafont, C. V. Raman was present. Dr. Amrit Lal Sircar while presenting the annual report of the association mentioned about Raman’s commencement of research work at the association. Dr. Amrit Lal reported: “It is my greatest satisfaction to be able to announce before you that we have already got a young student with fine intellect who has been doing research work in our laboratory on physical optics and a side issue of his work has been published in the Nature of the 24th October 1907. The actual work will be laid bare before you in a meeting very soon. This young student, Mr. C. V. Raman, who has also become our member, is now in the Finance Department for his livelihood….” So Father Lafont had the opportunity to welcome and encourage the future Nobel Laureate of India. Regarding his role in creating the Association Father Lafont said: “…I consider that the privilege I have had of helping however humbly, towards the foundation of the Science Association was the best thing I had done in India.”

Father Lafont’s oratory skill was proverbial. His scientific lectures accompanied with experimental demonstrations. Professor Ruchi Ram Sahni , who played a pioneering role in popularizing science in Punjab wrote: “No less beneficial was my regular attendance at the lectures on popular science at Dr. Mahendra Lal Sircar’s Institute. It was these lectures that led myself and Professor Oman to start the Punjab Science Institute at Lahore. I shall never forget the wonderful popular lectures of Father E. Lafont of St. Xavier’s College. There were other lecturers also who appeared on the platform now and again, but in making a difficult point crystal clear and, especially, in creating popular interest in science, no one could approach the Jesuit Professor.” Commenting on Father Lafont’s lectue at St. Xavier’s College The Indo-European Correspondence wrote (May 14, 1870): “In spite of the intense heat, and the distance of St. Xavier’s College from the north part of the town, Fr. Lafont’s opening lecture on Physical Science on Thursday, the 5th instant (5 May 1870), was well-attended, a fair number of the elite of the native savants being present. The lecturer’s object being eminently practical, he wisely eschewed anything like showiness and unnecessary technicalities—in fact, as the Hindoo Patriot remarks, “there was not one technical word or phrase which an ordinary English student could not understand.” This was the system pursued by Faraday and Brande in their lectures at the London Royal Institution, and as it proved not only useful but attractive in London, we see no reason why it should not do so in Calcutta.” Similarly commenting on Father Lafont’s popular scientific lecture delivered on August 23, 1887, The Statesman wrote on August 26, 1887: “ The Rev. Father Lafont delivered a most interesting and instructive lecture on ‘Colour: What it is’, at the Dalhousie Institute on Tuesday night, before a fair attendance of ladies and gentlemen. The exposition although necessarily largely scientific, was made so clear to laymen, that any person of ordinary intelligence was easily able to follow the lecture. The instruction given was exemplified by experiments of various kinds, showing how all colours are contained in the rays of the sun, and can be distinctly seen, as in the rainbow, when reflected through a prism of glass, but which when striking the retina of the eye simultaneously produce the ordinary white light of the sun. The lecture also exemplified the cause of colour-blindness, and exhibited magnesium light, and the light produced from the metal known as sodium; the effect of the latter being to make all things of whatever colour, appear yellow. A most pleasant evening was passed.”

Father Lafont gave lectures on a variety of topics. Here we list some of the topics on which he gave lecture. Dalton’s Atomic Theory (19 May 1870); Physical Basis of Spectrum Analysis (April 11, 1872); Electricity (April 10, 1876); The Truth about Galileo’s Condemnation (June 23, 1881); The properties of Air We Breathe (January 19, 1882); Lenses (March 30, 1882); The Transformation of the Physical Forces (December 20, 1882); The Properties of Gases (November 12, 1885); The Barometer (November 19, 1885); Barometers and Barometrographs (November 26, 1885); Balloons (January 14, 1886); Introductory Acoustics (January 21, 1886); Three Qualities of Musical Sounds (February 11, 1886); The History and Capabilities of Edison’s Speaking Phonograph with Illustration and Experiments (July 15, 1886); Velocity of Light and Means of Measuring It (August 26, 1886); Reflection of Light (September 8, 1886); Refraction of Light (November 17, 1886); Equilibrium of Fluids (September 6, 1887); Human Eye (September 25, 1888); Motion on Gyroscope (January 22, 1891); General Methods in Chemical Analysis (January 22, 1891); Effect of Rapidly Alternating Currents in the Induction Coil (September 6, 1893); X-ray or Rontgen Rays (December 6, 1896); Telegraphy Without Wires—assisted by Ex-student Jagadis Chandra Bose (September 16, 1897); The Evolution of Induced Electric Current: Demonstration with Latest Equipment from Paris (May 6, 1902); The Phenomenon of Radioactivity (November 1907). Lafont gave his last lecture on Demonstration of Gramophone four days before his death.

Father Lafont took keen interest in any kind of new machines or experiments. He brought a phonograph from the Paris Exhibition in December 1878 and he started experimenting upon it. He also gave a lecture on the phonograph on July 15, 1886. He had brought another phonograph from the Gramophone Company of USA. Father Lafont keenly observed the balloon ascent experiments in Kolkata during 1889-90 particularly those which were meant for scientific experiments. Father Lafont was all for the development of science and technology for understanding the Nature and welfare of the humanity. At the annual meeting of the Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science on November 29, 1906 Father Lafont said: “We live in an age which has the full right of being proud of its achievements, there is no gainsaying it. The last century and few years of this one through which we have passed already, mark an epoch in the history of mankind, which is most extraordinarily of progress. No century has seen the progress which we have witnessed in the last century, and the powers of mankind over nature have increased in a most unaccountable manner by leaps and bounds, and what is remarkable, is that more discoveries we make, the more we expect….Out of the knowledge of truth, we must secure facts— facts, not fancy, not imagination, not dreams but hard facts. Then having secured as many facts as we can, by observation and experiment, as the case may be, we have learnt to compare and analyse them in such way that we find out the law that binds that great chain of facts in a rational and reasonable manner.” But then being a deeply religious man he was not satisfied by mere understanding of the material world. Thus he further continued: “We try to find out the laws of nature and we very often succeed. It is altogether false that those wonderful methods of scientific investigations and studies apply to matter and nothing else. Further, all the progress which the human mind has made during the nineteenth century, and of which we are justly proud, is confined to matter, remember. Now, who will say that there is nothing to be known in this world but matter? It is to be regretted that men who are proficient in the study of experimental science should become rank materialists and should come the conclusion that there is nothing but matter in this world.”

Father Lafont tried to explain or rationalize the condemnation of Galileo by the Church by citing the existing circumstances and also Galileo’s attitude. In his lecture titled “The Truth About Galileo’s Condemnation” delivered on June 23, 1881 at the Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science, Father Lafont said: “Do not for a moment imagine that I intend denying the fact of the condemnation; on the contrary, I have here the very text of the sentence (here read) and I candidly admit the Congregation condemned the system of Copernicus about the earth’s rotation in most emphatic terms. But what I do repudiate is that in so doing they acted cruelly towards the old Astronomer, that they evinced a secret hatred of scientific progress, or committed such an error against faith as to debar the Catholic Church from claiming infallibility…It is all very well for us in the nineteenth Century, surrounded by all the proofs of the system, to laugh at the simplicity and ignorance of the Inquisitors declaring that system false in philosophy and heretical, but to judge them fairly we must go back to their own times and see on what scanty evidence they were asked to sanction an hypothesis which ruined an interpretation of the Scriptures universally admitted. We can only repeat that if Galileo instead of intruding into the domain of theology had confined his genius and energy of the work of perfecting the knowledge of the laws of Dynamics he would have been unmolested and would have advanced the case of Science, which his imprudent impetuosity retarded considerably.”

Father Lafont died on May 10, 1908 in Darjeeling in West Bengal. He preached science and religion till his last days with equal success.

For Further Reading

  1. Biswas, Arun Kumar. Father Lafont of St. Xaviers College and the Contemporary Science Movement. Kolkata: The Asiatic Society, 2001. This is the first-ever critical survey of Father Laont’s life and contributions in science and religion.
  2. Geddes, Patrick. An Indian Pioneer of Science: The Life and Work of Sir Jagadis C. Bose. London: Longmans, Green, And Co., 1920 (Asian Educational Services, New Delhi has brought out a reprint in 2000).
  3. Dsgupta, Subrata. Jagadis Chandra Bose and the Indian Response to Western Science. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1999.
  4. Sehgal, Narender K and Subodh Mahanti (Eds.). Memoirs of Ruchi Ram Sahni: Pioneer of Science Popularisation in Punjab. New Delhi: Vigyan Prasar, 1994 (Distributed by New Age International Limited, New Delhi).
  5. A Century. Kolkata: Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science, 1976.
  6. Salwi, Dilip M. Jagadish Chandra Bose: The First Modern Scientist. New Delhi: Rupa & Co, 2002.
  7. Chinnici, Ileana. An “Italian” Observatory in India: The History of the Calcutta Observatory” in Studies in History of Medicine & Science, Vol. XIV, No. 1-2, New Series (!995/96), pp. 91-115.
  8. Scholberg, Henry (Ed.). The Biographical Dictionary of Greater India. New Delhi: Promilla & Co., Publishers, 1998.