Dr. Kamala Sohonie : Breaking the barriers in the history of Indian Science
This article is about the first female Ph.D from India. The story unfolds her struggles and achievements. This is one of the earliest stories of breaking gender disparity in the scientific community of India.
Could you guess the name of the first Indian who won the Nobel Prize in Science?
You might have guessed it right. He is Prof. C. V. Raman, the pride of Indian Science. He was the recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physics for his discovery of the Raman effect in 1930. We celebrate our National Science Day every year on 28th February because on this day, he and his student announced the discovery of Raman scattering in 1928. We all see him as a great propagator of science in India. But how would you react if I disagree with it, based on his opinions of the people who compose the scientific community ? Hold on to your words! I will elaborate on my stance as you read ahead.
Dr. Kamala Sohonie An application for pursuing Master’s was dismissed in 1933 by Prof. C V Raman, the then Director of the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), even though the applicant had topped her university merit list in Bachelor’s. Sources say that Prof. Raman rejected the application as he heavily “doubted” the competence of women to pursue research. The applicant was Ms. Kamala Sohonie (erstwhile Kamala Bhagvat), the first Indian woman to receive a Ph.D. in Biochemistry in 1939.
You might be wondering how she continued research and later received her Ph.D if her application was not accepted in the first place. She was adamant and took over the Nobel Laureate by holding a satyagraha in his office. He was unable to give a valid official justification and eventually had to accept her application on three conditions. Firstly, she will not be allowed as a regular candidate and will stay on some sort of a probation. Secondly, she had to work late at night as per the instruction of her guide. Lastly, she will not spoil the lab environment - a subtle warning that she “should not be a 'distraction' to male researchers”.
She was deeply hurt. But the strong will to pursue science made her accept all the terms, and her perseverance led her to become the first woman to be admitted to the institute.
Let's now take a look at her life more closely.
The budding years
Kamala was born in 1911 in the then sleepy city of Indore, Madhya Pradesh. She was brought up in a highly educated family. Her father, Shri Narayanarao Bhagvat and her uncle were among the first chemists to graduate from the Indian Institute of Science, previously known as Tata Institute of Sciences. Young Kamala grew up admiring them. It was natural for her to take up Chemistry for her undergraduate studies at Bombay University. As a university topper, she thought it would be easy to get admission for further studies at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. Shockingly for her, reality didn’t align well with her expectations.
Kamala later recounts her application issue; 'Though Raman was a great scientist, he was very narrow-minded. I can never forget the way he treated me just because I was a woman. Even then, Raman didn't admit me as a regular student. This was a great insult to me. The bias against women was so bad at that time. What can one expect if even a Nobel Laureate behaves in such a way?' [5,6]
After getting admission, she worked along Prof. Sreenivasayya who was a strict and demanding teacher. She devoted herself to work so much that after a year, Prof Raman allowed her as a regular student and to pursue research in Biochemistry. It was then that Raman got convinced of the competence of women in science. Next year onwards, the institute allowed intake of female students thereby helping other aspiring women scientists to excel.
Her time along with her mentor at IISc, Prof. Sreenivasayya left a lasting impression on her scientific career. She worked on characterizing the various proteins present in milk, legumes and pulses. Her first paper in 1935 involved characterization of non-protein nitrogen of nine pulses. It was shown that these contain simpler, easily digestible and assimilable components , important for boosting the nutrition in children. In her next paper, she further characterized the nutrients of milk. These works paved the way for her MS thesis in 1936. [1,2]
After that, she earned a research scholarship at the prestigious Cambridge University for pursuing her Ph.D. She went on to work with potatoes and discovered the universality of the enzyme 'Cytochrome C,' in all biochemical reactions within plants. . She sent a short thesis describing this finding for her Ph.D. degree. Her thesis was completed in just 14 months and was just 40 pages long! Thus she became the first Indian woman to get a Ph.D. in a science discipline, that too from the acclaimed Cambridge University.
A) C V Raman, Director of IISc, Bangalore who refused Kamala entrance to the institute. (B) M Sreenivasaya, Kamala’s mentor at IISc. (C) Derek Richter, (D) Robin Hill and (E) Fredrick G Hopkins – Kamala’s three supervisors at Cambridge University.
Courtesy: Photos A, C, D, E from en.wikipedia.org; Photo B from M Sreenivasaya’s Legacy from iisc connect Following the completion of Ph.D
After completing her doctoral studies in 1939, she returned to India and worked as the head of the Department of Biochemistry at Lady Hardinge College, New Delhi. Later she joined the Royal Institute of Science in Mumbai, carried out detailed biochemical studies of different food items to accurately determine various vitamins present in them thus providing the scientific guidelines to improve the nutritional status of severely malnourished population of India. She worked on 'neera', a drink made from palm extract on the suggestion of the First Indian President of India, Dr. Rajendra Prasad. Her studies established that ‘neera’ was a good source of Vitamin C along with other vitamins, moreover there are sulfhydryl compounds in Neera that protected vitamins during storage. Realising that this would be a cheap and good supplement for poor tribals, she went to popularise this drink. The introduction of neera in the diet of tribal malnourished children and pregnant women improved their health significantly. She received the President's award for this work and later became Director of the Royal Institute of Science, now known as Institute of Science, Mumbai.
It is said that her appointment as the Director was delayed due to the gender bias prevalent in the scientific community at that time. Once she finally became Director, her first guide at Cambridge, Dr. Derik Richter, famously exclaimed:, 'She has made history!'[2,3] She attributed her achievements in her scientific career to her family, her teacher- Sreenivasayya, and her loving husband.
Kamala was a prolific science writer as well. She published a good number of books for young students. One of her notable works is “Aahar Gatha” written in Marathi language. Besides her scientific career, she also became an advisor to the Aarey Milk Project Factory, Bombay and developed a protocol that prevented curdling of milk. In addition, she was the founder member of India's Consumer Guidance Society (CGSI). Founded by nine women in 1966, CGSI was the earliest consumer protection organization in India. She stepped beyond the confinements of academics and worked for the betterment of the quality of lives in her country, thus fulfilling her duty towards society, as a scientist.
Her life symbolizes the grit of women to overcome struggles and prove their worth. She broke the glass ceiling in those days and now women are thriving in the scientific community. With her passing in 1998, we have lost an inspiring scientist, but her work and attitude continue to motivate future generations of scientists.
S Ravi Vishwakarma, an alumnus of the Department of Physical Sciences, IISER Kolkata (BS-MS 2015), loves to try his hands at different stuff. He tends to be captivated by the science hidden in history and tries to protect them from getting lost in time. He is now enrolled as a Ph.D. student at Gulbenkian Institute of Science, Lisbon. For his new found hobby of science writing, this is his second article!
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