Women Scientists of India

A tribute to the women fellows from the Indian Academy of Sciences who have passed away. This is a selection from the publication "Lilavati's Daughters"

Lilavati's Daughters - Cover Page of PublicationIndian Academy of Sciences

Lilavati's Daughters

This initiative of the Women in Science (WiS) Panel relates to mentoring of young women who are potentially looking for careers in science, engineering, medicine etc.

WiS has compiled a collection of essays on the lives of Indian women scientists in the form a book titled 'Lilavati's Daughters: The Women Scientists of India'. The book contains brief biographical and autobiographical sketches of about one hundred women scientists from India. Covering a range of disciplines, in these essays the women scientists talk of what brought them to science, what kept their interest alive, and what has helped them achieve some measure of distinction in their careers.

The Panel of Women in Science hopes that this collection would represent our cultural diversity as well as cover a large range of disciplines so that any woman student could gain from the insights and experiences of women to whom they can relate at many levels.

The book 'Lilavati's Daughters: The Women Scientists of India' was successfully released during the Inaugural session of the Annual meeting of the Indian Academy of Sciences on 31st October, 2008, by Dr. D. Balasubramanian, President of IAS, at the Indian Institute of Technology, New Delhi.

Anandibai Joshi, From the collection of: Indian Academy of Sciences
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Medicine (1885, Philadelphia), Anandibai Joshi, the first Hindu woman to obtain a medical degree in the Western hemisphere, was born Yamuna Joshi on March 31, 1865 in Poona, India. She was the first lady to complete medical eduacation in the USA. She died in Poona at an early age of 22.

An excerpt from the publication "Anandi Gopal": "In ‘lot 216-A’ of the Poughkeepsie Rural Cemetery, New York, amongst the numerous gravestones of Americans lies the rectangular gravestone of Dr. Anandibai Joshi. The inscription tells us that Anandi Joshi was a Hindu Brahmin girl, the first Indian woman to receive education abroad and to obtain a medical degree. How did she achieve this? What were the obstacles she faced?"

Edavaleth Kakkat Janaki Ammal Edavaleth Kakkat Janaki Ammal, From the collection of: Indian Academy of Sciences
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D.Sc. (1931, Michigan), Founder Fellow of the Indian Academy of Sciences. Winner of Padmashri Award. Was a renowned botanist and plant cytologist who made significant contributions to genetics, evolution, phytogeography and ethnobotany.

An excerpt from the publication "Edavaleth Kakkat Janaki Ammal": "Janaki Ammal was born in the year 1897, in Tellichery, Kerala, in a cultured middle class family. Her father was a sub-judge in what was then the Madras Presidency. She had six brothers and five sisters. After schooling in Tellichery, she moved to Madras where she obtained the bachelor’s degree from Queen Mary’s College, and an honours degree in Botany from Presidency College in 1921. She then taught at Women’s Christian College (WCC), Madras, with a sojourn as a Barbour Scholar at the University of Michigan in the USA where she obtained her master’s degree in 1925. Returning to India, she continued to teach at the WCC, but went to Michigan again as the first Oriental Barbour Fellow and obtained her D.Sc. in 1931."

Anna Mani, From the collection of: Indian Academy of Sciences
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FASc, FNA, Ph.D. (submitted 1945, Madras). The only woman scientist to work with C.V. Raman, is well known for her work in atmospheric physics and instrumentation. She contributed to the study of radiation, ozone and atmospheric electricity, both on the surface and in the upper air using special sounding techniques. Joining the India Meteorological Department in 1948 she rose to become the Deputy Director General of Observatories in Delhi.

An excerpt from the publication "An appreciation of Anna Mani": "Anna Mani grew up in a prosperous family in the state of Travancore, a former princely state in the Southern part of India, now part of Kerala. Born in 1918, she was the seventh of eight siblings. Anna Mani’s father was a civil engineer with large cardamom estates to his name. The family belonged to the ancient Syrian Christian church; however her father remained an agnostic throughout his life. The Mani family was a typical upper-class professional household where from childhood the male children were groomed for high-level careers, whereas the daughters were primed for marriage. But Anna Mani would have none of it. Her formative years were spent engrossed in books. By the age of eight, she had read almost all the books in Malayalam at her public library and, by the time she was twelve, all the books in English. On her eighth birthday she declined to accept her family’s customary gift of a set of diamond earrings, opting instead for a set of Encyclopedia Britannica. The world of books opened her to new ideas and imbued in her a deep sense of social justice which informed and shaped her life."

Asima Chatterjee, From the collection of: Indian Academy of Sciences
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First woman D.Sc. (1944, Calcutta), FASc, FNA, Khaira Professor of Chemistry, Calcutta University. Recipient of the Padma Bhushan. The numerous awards she won include S S Bhatnagar award, C V Raman award of the UGC, P C Ray award, Sisir K Mitra Lectureship and Dr G P Chatterjee Lectureship. First lady president of the Indian Science Congress, member of Rajya Sabha. Her area of interest was natural products with special reference to the medicinal chemistry.

An excerpt from the publication "Asima Chatterjee": "Asima Chatterjee showed early promise obtaining her M.Sc. degree from Calcutta University in 1938, with organic chemistry as the special paper and D.Sc. degree in 1944 from the same university under the guidance of P. K. Bose, the pioneer natural product chemist in India. She was the first woman to be awarded the D.Sc. of any Indian university. In 1940, Chatterjee joined Lady Brabourne College, Calcutta, as the Founder – Head of the Chemistry Department. In 1944, she was appointed as an Honorary Lecturer in Chemistry, Calcutta University. She worked with L.M. Parks University of Wisconsin, USA (1947) on naturally occurring glycosides, with L. Zechmeister, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, USA (1948–49) on Carotinoids and provitamins and with Paul Karrer, N.L. University of Zurich (1949–50) on biologically active alkaloids, which became her life-long interest ever since. After her return to India in 1950, she vigorously pursued investigations on the chemistry of Indian medicinal plants, particularly alkaloids and coumarins."

Sipra Guha-Mukherjee, From the collection of: Indian Academy of Sciences
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Ph.D. (1963, Delhi), FASc, FNASc. A recipient of the Senior National Bio-scientist Award, the Om Prakash Bhasin Foundation Award in Biotechnology and the Kanishka Award. She was Professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. Her field of specialization was plant tissue culture, plant molecular biology, biotechnology and cell biology. She passed away in September 2007 after writing this piece for Lilavati's Daughters.

An excerpt from the publication "Successfully combating prejudice": "I decided to study botany because it was my favorite subject in school. As a school student I was awed by the contribution of Sir Jagdish Chandra Bose, and fascinated by his work that showed that plants were living organisms and had a metabolism similar to that of animals. His hypothesis that ascent of sap in plants is due to pulsatory activity of an inner layer of cortical cells (a theory no longer tenable) infused a huge excitement in me, as earlier I used to think that plants were inert objects which could never respond to any external stimuli. As a student in classes five and six, I developed a strong determination to find the locations of the “heart” and “brain” of plants and to understand the way they functioned. "

Iravati Karve, From the collection of: Indian Academy of Sciences
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Ph.D. (1930, Berlin). This renowned anthropologist was the Head of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Deccan College. She presided over the Anthropology division of the National Science Congress in 1947. She wrote extensively on a wide variety of academic subjects and otherwise. Her writings include the highly acclaimed book 'Yuganta' which won the Sahitya Academy Award.

An excerpt from the publication "Not so quiet has flown the Iravati": "The name Iravati is rather unusual, but then her whole life was unusual. The daughter of Hari Ganesh Karmarkar was born in Burma in 1905 when he was working as an engineer there and was named after the river Irawady. At the age of seven she was sent to India for schooling to Huzoor Paga, a boarding school for girls (and one of the first schools for girls in Maharashtra), in Pune. There she made friends with a classmate, Shakuntala Paranjpye, daughter of Wrangler R.P. Paranjpye. Shakuntala’s mother took Iravati to stay with her family: this was to change the course of her life. At this intellectual, atheistic household, she was exposed to a wide range of books and people, one of whom was judge Balakram, who instilled in her an interest in anthropology, a field in which she was to work and leave her mark. It was during this period that she met and later married Dinakar Karve, a Professor of Chemistry in the Fergusson College,Pune, the second son of Maharshi Dhondo Keshav Karve, one of the pioneers in the field of women’s education and widow remarriage in the country."

Anjali Mookerjee, From the collection of: Indian Academy of Sciences
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She received her Ph.D. in 1963, in Calcutta. She retired from the School of Environmental Sciences at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi where she was Dean. Her research had been on radiation biophysics. She was the Director of the Sivatosh Mookerjee Science Centre.

An excerpt from the publication "Road to research": "From my childhood, I knew that mathematics was the stepping stone to enter the world of Science, and that was what together with Sanskrit, our elders learnt. And that I too would learn the same. Mine was a ‘joint family’ of the feudal zamindari system, consisting of my father and his two older brothers, my grandmother, mother, two older aunts, and cousins and my brother and two sisters. Daughters were very well taken care of, including their education. My hometown was Chandernagore – a small French township on the banks of the river Hooghly. It had a French Convent School, a Church, and various other schools and colleges, and some French nationals. I was a student of St. Joseph’s Convent – where we followed Junior and Senior Cambridge Course.

Purnima Sinha, From the collection of: Indian Academy of Sciences
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First woman Ph.D. in Physics (1956, Calcutta), she retired from the Central Glass and Ceramic Research Institute.

An excerpt from the publication "Like mother, like daughter": "Around the middle of 1951 I started working on my Ph.D. with Prof. S. N.Bose at the Khaira Laboratory in Kolkata. He advised me to carry out an investigation on the structure of clay from various parts of India. He suggested that I could use techniques of thermal and chemical analysis along with X-ray scattering and also suggested that I fabricate my own X-ray tube of the Coolidge kind so that the parts could be dismantled and put together at will. At that time about ten of us were involved in experimental research at the Khaira laboratory. Each of us used to fabricate his or her own instrument according to individual need. This was an unwritten rule in our laboratory."

Rajeshwari Chatterjee, From the collection of: Indian Academy of Sciences
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Ph.D. (1953, Ann Arbor), her awards include Mountbatten prize for the best paper from the Institute of Electrical and Radio Engineering, UK, the J C Bose Memorial prize for the best research paper from the Institution of Engineers. First woman faculty member at IISc, she retired as a Professor in 1982. Specialized in the field of microwave engineering and antennae engineering.

An excerpt from "Lucky to be where I am": "I was born in January 1922 in a progressive, open-minded family, not perhaps with a silver spoon in my mouth, but surely with a book in hand! My family, a large extended one as was common in those days, were all fairly well read, even the girls, and were encouraged to take part in any activity we chose. My grandmother, Kamalamma Dasappa, was one of the very first women graduates in the erstwhile Mysore State, and was very active in the field of women’s education, especially those of widows and deserted wives. In order to help the cause of girls’ education, she initiated the setting up of an accelerated school syllabus, which permitted students to finish their matriculation by the age of 14 or so. This was done in the “Special English School” run by the “Mahila Seva Samaja”, and some of my cousins and I went through this course"

Kamala Sohonie, From the collection of: Indian Academy of Sciences
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Ph.D. (1939, Cambridge). Recipient of the Rastra-pati award for best scientific research. Life time achievement felicitation by ICMR. Assistant Director, NRI, Cunnoor, India. Retired as First Lady Director, Institute of Science, Mumbai.

An excerpt from the publication "The Scientist Lady": "Kamala Sohonie was a quiet, unassuming person. A woman of few words. To look at her one would think that the stream of her life also must have been quiet, easy, uneventful. It was not so, she had many hurdles to cross. Many rapids to pass, before she could be known as a ‘Woman in Science’. That too when she had full support from her family. Little Kamala (Bhagwat) was very fat. She had an uncle who was a renowned chemist and also very fat. So the young fat girl decided that she was destined to be a renowned chemist. Her father Narayanrao Bhagwat and his brother Madhavrao were dis- tinguished chemists too. They were among the first to pass out from (Tata) Institute of Science, Bangalore."

Vijayalakshmi B, From the collection of: Indian Academy of Sciences
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Ph.D (1982, Madras). For her research she studied relativistic wave equations and their proportions. She expired on 12th May 1985 at the age of 33 due to cancer. She had 11 papers to her credit in international journals.

An excerpt from the publication "A heroic struggle of a scientist with a cancer": "Viji joined the Department of Theoretical Physics in 1974 after obtaining her Masters from Seethalakshmi Ramaswami College,Tiruchirapalli. Hers was a conservative background, and it was remarkable that she could overcome conventional gender restrictions and consider research an option. Our advisor was Professor P. M. Mathews, who was the head of department at that time. Always smiling and friendly, Viji discussed the graduate courses with me like any other student. Once, while we were discussing our work, she expressed some discomfort and I enquired about it. Looking straight at me as if to gauge my reaction, she replied that she had been diagnosed with widespread cancer of the stomach and the abdominal region. I was shocked and speechless for a few moments. Later she told me that her major aim was to make some substantial research contribution and be recognised as a physicist and that her immediate goal was to finish her research degree before anything happened to her."

Darshan Ranganathan, From the collection of: Indian Academy of Sciences
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Ph.D. (1967, Delhi), FASc, FNA. Her honors include a Senior Research Scholarship of the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851, A.V. Rama Rao Foundation Award, Jawaharlal Nehru Birth Centenary Visiting Fellowship, Third World Academy of Sciences Award in Chemistry and Sukh Dev Endowment Lectureship. Was Deputy Director, IICT, Hyderabad. She passed away from metastasis of cancer.

An excerpt from the publication "She was a star": "Darshan Ranganathan was born on June 4, 1941 and passed away from metastasis of cancer on June 4, 2001, exactly at the age of sixty. Darshan! I often said, “You are a star”! She was more than that. She was a comet on the chemical horizon, shedding brilliance at prodigious costs of energy and vanishing at the apex of her career. In describing Darshan’s personality, I will begin with, what many may consider a hyperbole. With her expensive Canjeevram saris and the big red bindi on her forehead, she always appeared elegant to the extent that after one of her lectures at a symposium in Bangalore, a German professor commented that she reminded him of a picture of an Indian Goddess!"

V Kalpagam, From the collection of: Indian Academy of Sciences
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Ph.D. (1960, IISc). Her specializations are polymers and polymer solutions.

An excerpt from the publication "My journey in science": "It all started in our own house. My father did his M.Sc. by Research in Physics from Madras University and then joined as a lecturer in the then-famous Nizam College in Hyderabad which was affiliated to Madras University. He took us to his laboratory during our formative years. He used to inspire us always by explaining the scientific significance of all the things that we came across in our daily life. We had plenty of popular books to read at home. Quite a few colleagues of his used to visit our house and we children had good interaction with them and their children, most of whom were our classmates in school. I was very fortunate to have supportive parents and good advisers from the beginning."

Kamal Ranadive Kamal Ranadive, From the collection of: Indian Academy of Sciences
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Ph.D. (1949, Bombay), FNA. This recipient of the Padmabhushan established the first tissue culture laboratory in India at the Indian Cancer Research Centre (presently Cancer Research Institute). She got Watumal Foundation Award for her work in the field of leprosy. She founded the Indian Women Scientist Association (IWSA).

An excerpt from the publication "Obsessed with excellence": "Kamal Samarth was born in Pune in 1917. Her father taught biology at Ferguson College, Pune and ensured that all his children, including his daughters, were well educated. Of all his children, Kamal was the brightest. She went to a girls high school ‘Huzurpaga: the H.H.C.P. High School for girls’ and studied botany at Ferguson College. Further she joined the Agriculture College, Pune where she worked on the cytogenetics of annoneacae for her Master’s degree. Following her marriage to J.T. Ranadive, Kamal Ranadive moved to Bombay close to Tata Memorial Hospital which brought her in contact with V.R Khanolkar, a renowned pathologist and great visionary, who founded the Indian Cancer Research Centre. Kamal worked under his guidance for the Ph.D. degree from the University of Bombay. After a post doctoral stint in the laboratory of George Gey who developed the HeLa cell line at Johns Hopkins University Hospital, Kamal Ranadive returned to India and established the first tissue culture laboratory at the Indian Cancer Research Centre. In the early 1960s tissue culture media and other reagents had to be prepared in the laboratory. To fulfill these needs Dr Ranadive recruited a team of biologists and bio chemists."

Satyavati M Sirsat, From the collection of: Indian Academy of Sciences
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Ph.D. (1958, Bombay), FASc. The awards she received include among others are - the Shakuntaladevi Amirchand Prize of the ICMR, Transasian award for biological electron microscopy, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan's Citation for Lifetime award for science and humaneness. She works in the area of cancer research pathology, wound healing and regeneration and viruses and human cancer.

An excerpt from the publication "Exploring nature's secrets: "As one puts pen to paper to write about oneself, events and impressions from childhood onwards well up. After my birth in Karachi and our wanderings through many countries following my father’s shipping ventures, my parents – both staunch Theosophists – sent us off to the Besant Memorial School of Drs. George and Rukmini Arundale. Rukmini had brought about a renaissance of ancient Indian art and music at Kalakshetra. During my early teens, I read a fascinating book by Paul de Kruif “The Microbe Hunters”, which left a lasting impression on me. Along with formal education, I also had the advantage of a cultural heritage. I went to Bombay and obtained a degree in microbiology from St. Xavier’s College. My first look through an optical microscope at a smear of a mixed gram-positive and negative culture of micro-organisms gave me an emotional thrill I can never forget."

Priti Shankar, From the collection of: Indian Academy of Sciences
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Ph.D. (1972, Maryland), Outstanding Scholarship Award from the American Association of University Women, IEEE Distinguished Visitor Speaker (India), and Jaya-Jayant Award from IISc for excellence in teaching. She is at the Department of Computer Science and Automation, IISc, Bangalore, and works on compiler design and coding theory.

An excerpt from the publication "From the abstract to the concrete": "The earliest memory that I have of studying something I really enjoyed, is learning elementary school algebra from my mother. She was a school teacher, and taught mathematics and French in high school. The year was 1958, and we were about to move from Khadakvasla in Pune, to Jammu, as my father, an officer in the Indian army, was posted to Surankote, a small town on the border between India and Pakistan. I had to be coached for the next class, having missed six months of school. I remember the pleasure of being able to convert a problem into an abstract formulation, using variables for unknowns, and then actually getting the answer by solving simple equations. It appeared magical at that time."

Charusita Chakravarty, From the collection of: Indian Academy of Sciences
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Ph.D. (1990, Cambridge), FASc, is a recipient of S S Bhatnagar Award, Swarnajayanti Fellowship of the DST, the Bronze Medal of the Chemical Research Society of India, the B.M. Birla Science Award in Chemistry, and the INSA Medal for Young Scientists. She works in the areas of physical and theoretical chemistry, and chemical and computational physics.

An excerpt from the publication "Negotiating choices": "As a child in an academic family, I always had a lot of books around and read extensively and fairly indiscriminately. As I grew older, some of this curiosity was channelised towards science, encouraged to some extent by a very good science teacher in primary school and our neighbours who were botanists. Overall, though, when I look back, I can see that the dominant influence in shaping my academic interests was that of my father. I do not remember that he ever paid any attention to homework or examination preparation but he had an enormous range of intellectual interests himself and, when he found the time, he was always interested and encouraging about whatever I might be reading or learning."

Credits: Story

Lilavati's Daughters, edited by Rohini Godbole and Ram Ramaswamy

Indian Academy of Sciences

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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