100 years ago, this Indian was Oxford’s first doctor

The University of Oxford is marking the centenary of the first person who passed its Doctorate of Philosophy (DPhil degree: Lakshman Sarup, who arrived from Lahore in colonial India to study Yaksa’s ‘Nirukta’, the oldest Indian treatise on etymology.

The university had introduced the first doctorate in Britain in 1917, inspired by research degrees introduced in Germany, where American and British researchers had to go to study the then new science of Chemistry at an advanced level.

Sarup, who graduated from DAV College, Lahore, in 1913 and obtained MA in Sanskrit from Oriental College, Lahore, was the first of two students enrolled on Oxford’s DPhil, the other was James Bronte Gatenby from New Zealand.

While teaching Sanskrit in DAV College, Sarup was awarded a scholarship by the colonial Indian government and joined Balliol College in 1916. He was supervised by one of the foremost British scholars of Sanskrit, Arthur Anthony Macdonnell (born in 1854 in Muzaffarpur.

Sarup produced an English translation of ‘Nirukta’, the ancient text on philology, semantics and etymology. His was the first critical edition of the text, examining the contribution of ancient India and Greece to modern linguistics.

Sarup submitted the thesis on November 29, 1919 and obtained the ‘leave to supplicate’ (meaning he passed the degree, making him the first student to obtain a DPhil, university records show.

After the end of World War I, Sarup travelled around Europe for further research, particularly in universities in Paris and Starsbourg. He was appointed professor of Sanskrit Literature at Punjab University in 1920.

Also known for his interest in French literature, Sarup started a French study group, the Minerva Club, and translated two of Moliere’s plays into Hindu, for which he was recognised by Academie Francaise – the first Indian to receive the honour.

Sarup and Gatenby published their theses before they were examined at ‘viva voce’, but were required to defend them to Oxford examiners. Women were not admitted as full members of the university until 1920; the first DPhil to a woman came two years later in 1922 to Evelyn Mary Simpson.

After Sarup, several Indian students obtained DPhil over the decades, including former prime minister Manmohan Singh, for his thesis titled ‘India’s export performance, 1951–1960, export prospects and policy implications’ in 1962.