Father Eugène Lafont: A Priest, a Magician, a Teacher

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    Did you know that St Xavier’s College at Park Street, Kolkata, had the first science lab for students in India? It was set up by a young Jesuit, Eugène Lafont, in the 1860s – a 28-year-old priest who wanted to make science education so exciting that he turned his classes into veritable magic shows and had people buying tickets to attend.

    As we discuss the new National Education Policy and our vision of our children’s future, it is important to remember that the education system in India was not framed entirely by the British. In fact, while that colonial government’s main objective was to create a class of efficient English-speaking clerks and junior officials, it was non-British educationists like Lafont who made sure that, at least in pockets, Indian students had access to the latest information from around the world in fields like science and industry.

    Western scientific ideas and instruments arrived on Indian shores courtesy these non-British Jesuits from France, Portugal, Spain, Belgium and Scotland. They had been building a strong base in India ever since St Francis Xavier first landed in Goa in 1542 CE. The Jesuit institutes were committed to imparting a religious, spiritual as well as a scientific education, and set up schools and colleges in cities across the country.

    Among the pioneering and most prestigious institutions of the time is St Xavier’s College established at Park Street in Calcutta in 1860. This institute stated from its inception that its mission was to impart the best European education to Catholic settlers and to natives, and its first prospectus stated, “The course of studies is similar to that pursued in the great colleges of Europe.”

    Among the greatest minds at St Xavier’s School and St Xavier’s College were Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore and physicist Jagadish Chandra Bose, remembered for his discovery of Millimetre waves and contribution to Botany and Biophysics. Bose graduated from St Xavier’s College in 1879 under the tutelage of Father Lafont, an educator who ignited his true passion for experimental science.

    Lafont joined the institution in 1865, and apart from mentoring students, went on to become a catalyst in developing a blueprint for science education in Calcutta, in collaboration with Dr Mahendralal Sircar, a social reformer and doctor who championed the cause of cultivating a scientific temperament. Together, they laid the foundation of the Indian Institute of Cultivation of Science, the first scientific research institute built and managed by Indians and which influenced great Indian minds in Bengal and beyond.

    Who was this young Jesuit who gave up his life in Belgium to dedicate himself to laying the foundation of science education in a faraway land?

    Eugène Lafont was born on 26th March 1837 in Belgium. He completed his secondary studies at the Jesuit College de Sainte-Barbe and joined the Society of Jesus, a prominent religious order of the Catholic Church. He taught in Jesuit schools in Belgium and had a natural flair for the experimental sciences.

    When, in 1859, the Society of Jesus decided to open a college for native Catholics in Bengal, Lafont was assigned to the newly founded St Xavier’s Institution (later St Xavier’s College) in 1865, as a science teacher. Being inclined towards experimentation, Lafont, then 28 years old, immediately prioritised setting up a laboratory on the college rooftop. It was the first of its kind in India and shot into the limelight soon after, in 1867, when he used it to make an accurate prediction about an impending cyclone.

    The local authorities of the British government had missed it, and thanks to Lafont, immediate measures were taken and lives were saved. The incident made Lafont a weather forecaster for the Indo-European Correspondence, a weekly newspaper published in Calcutta.

    Lafont realised that the way to lure students towards the natural sciences was to fascinate them with experiments. Being aware of The Royal Institution of England and its tradition of science lectures and demonstrations, he started organising weekly science lectures for the public, in which he demonstrated some scientific experiments. One of his first science lectures was on the magic lantern and it may well have been the first instance of a projection technique being used in a lecture in India. The magic lantern is an early type of image projector that used pictures—paintings, prints, or photographs—on transparent plates (usually made of glass), one or more lenses, and a light source. Lafont projected the magic lantern slides on a screen12 feet away.

    Lafont started raising funds for his laboratory through these lectures (the lectures were advertised, and one had to buy tickets). He often travelled to Paris to attend science exhibitions and buy new equipment. His hands-on demonstrations and lecture technique ignited a passion for science in students such as Jagadish Chandra Bose, chemist Prafulla Chandra Ray and geologist Pramatha Nath Bose. When Dr Sircar decided to build the Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science (IACS) in 1876, one of its founding members was Lafont.

    When a team of astronomers led by Pietro Tacchini from Italy arrived in Bengal to observe the transit of Venus across the sun on 6th December 1874, the Italian Consul in Calcutta entrusted Lafont with organising things for the visit. The latter suggested Madhupur (Muddapur, probably in Midnapore now) as the ideal spot for the viewing. The team carried out visual observations through a telescope and spectroscopic observations of the sun through a spectroscope.

    Tacchini was very impressed with the arrangements and convinced Lafont to build a solar observatory to carry forward the observation of the sun, sunspots and peripheral observations both through the telescope and the spectroscope so that data could be compared with teams working in Italian observatories. This prospect of collaboration led to the announcement of the building of an astronomical solar observatory, the first to use a spectroscope, on the rooftop of the St Xavier’s Institution. Lafont began collaborating and raising funds for state-of-the-art instruments for the observatory.

    But the collaboration was shortlived, as Lafont fell ill, apparently due to over-exposure to the sun. He passed on the observatory responsibilities to Father De Penaranda Alphonse, a physics teacher and his colleague.

    At the end of 1878, Lafont returned to Europe briefly to convalesce, but with a promise to send more scientific instruments to his college and to the IACS. To everyone’s delight, he returned soon at the end of 1879, to continue his public lectures, demonstrating new discoveries like the phonograph, electric light, sewing machine and X-ray. His lectures became hugely popular and attracted lay people and intellectuals alike. His audience now often included viceroys and other dignitaries. In 1880, he received a generous donation from Maharaja of Alwar to buy more instruments.

    A special hall had by now been designed at St Xavier’s College for these lectures and demonstrations. And Lafont’s talks seeded a popular science movement. Science lectures and demonstrations began to be held even in the Asiatic Society and Town Hall. Later, in 1894, in the Town Hall, in the presence of the then Governor of Bengal, a lecture-demonstration was arranged by Lafont to ensure that Prof Bose got due recognition as a pioneer of wireless communication.

    It is strange to think that one man could do it, but with his passion, his unique approach to education, and his extraordinary communication skills, Lafont bridged the science education gap between East and West. He was often asked how he reconciled that other great rift – the supposed one between Religion and Science. He replied with candour that there was no contradiction between the two truths of life because he never pitted one against the other.

    In 1904, at the age of 67, Lafont renounced his rectorship of St Xavier’s College but continued to take regular Physics classes till 1906. He was now slowing down, and doing fewer of his public lectures. Coincidentally, the last meeting he presided over at the IACS, in 1907, was the meeting where C V Raman, who would go on to become a world-renowned physicist, was introduced as a new member.

    After a brief spell of illness in April 1908, Lafont went to Darjeeling on medical advice. He died there on 10th May 1908. He is buried at North Point Cemetery, not far from the town’s St Joseph’s College where, just four days before he died, he had enthralled students with a lecture-demonstration on the gramophone.

    The institution Lafont helped build – now the prestigious St Xavier’s College in Kolkata – still carries forward his legacy, and indeed the legacy of the Jesuit educationists. Most instruments of his laboratory have been donated to different museums and since the college has grown and renovated multiple times with new addition of new labs, it is difficult to trace Father Lafont’s original laboratory. But Lafont’s rooftop solar observatory was most recently renovated and restored in 2014 and has been renamed in his honour. The IACS also conducts ‘Father Lafont Memorial Lecture’ annually in his honour. There, and elsewhere, the flame lit by his magic lantern continues to illuminate young minds.


    Madhuri Katti is a Kolkata based physics teacher, heritage enthusiast and an aspiring writer.

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