“When girls are in elementary school, they think they can be anyone, they can do anything. All of a sudden, they get into high school, and they get into science classes, and besides the fact that they’re doing as well or better than the boys in the class, they’re looking toward their future, and they see posters full of male scientists. They don’t see themselves on the lab bench. They don’t see where their place is”. Chien-Shiung Wu, one of the most prominent scientists of 20th century who wasn’t included in a Nobel prize granted for her own experiment.
Science, though a quintessentially rational profession, has been plagued by irrational social biases. Women have always been underrepresented, underpaid, and unrecognised in sciences. The lack of recognition alone does not represent the entirety of the problem. One of the biggest factors in lack of representation of 50% of the population is their systematic exclusion from the academics.
Lack of encouragement from a young age, restrictions on feminity, and outright rejections, women in STEM face these and a lot more. Sometimes however we see a star push away the dust around it and shine bright despite the challenges. Dr. Kamala Sohonie was one of such stars. Dr. Kamala had a lot of ‘Firsts’ to her name, leading on to become the first Indian Woman ‘on whom the title of PhD (in Science) degree was conferred’.
Kamala Bhagvat was born in 1912, in a highly-educated family. Her father and uncle were among the first Chemists to graduate from Indian Institute of Sciences (Then Tata Institute of Sciences) in Bengaluru. Kamala had a supportive family and in-house role models, so it was no surprise when she decided to become a Chemist herself. She finished school at top of her batch and enrolled into B.Sc. Physics and Chemistry course at Bombay Presidency College under Bombay University. She topped her batch again and graduated with proverbial Flying Colours.
Born into an affluential family with two alumni, and topper of the University merit list, she thought her admission into IISC would be easy. She failed to account for the bias against women at that time, her application was rejected. The Director of the Institute at that time was Nobel Laureate Sir C. V. Raman. Sir Raman was a man of principles, one of them was “I am not going to take any girls in my institute!”. Which was his reply to Kamala’s father and uncle’s request for reconsideration.
Refusing to settle for any other institute, or stand down against discrimination, Kamala persisted. She met Sir Raman and asked for reasons and assured him that she would complete her course with distinction, and yet Raman ignored her requests. Then 22-year-old Kamala resorted to Satyagrah in Raman’s Office. Sir Raman, unable to provide a valid official justification for the rejection, relented. He accepted Kamala’s application with some conditions which she had to accept. He did not admit her as a regular candidate, she had to work late nights as per instructions of her guide, and she was not to ‘Distract her male colleagues’.
Kamala was to later recount at an event by Indian Women Scientists’ Association (IWSA). “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?”
Kamala wasn’t the first woman at IISC, neither was she first to be treated unfairly by the management. IISC only had permanent hostels for men, women were allowed accommodation on temporary basis on the campus. She and two other candidates in the hostel faced unsafe living conditions and other issues during this time. Sir Raman’s wife, Mrs. Lokasundari Raman was the Warden of Women’s Hostel. Their request for a permanent hostel was denied by Ms Lokasundari on the basis that there weren’t enough women to warrant this.
After an year, Sir Raman allowed Kamala to become a regular research candidate in Biochemistry. She worked under Prof. Sreenivasayya who had a great influence on her. She studied works of giants in biochemistry and also wrote letters to some. She worked on proteins in milk and legumes, a subject which had importance due to nutrition issues in India at that time. She was the first person to characterize the proteins in pulses. Kamala submitted her research in 1936 and earned her MSc degree from Bombay University. After she left, Sir C. V. Raman started allowing more women candidates into the regular research programmes.
After a brief tenure at the Haffkine Institute for Training, Research and Testing, Bombay, Kamla moved to Cambridge University in UK in 1937. She worked under the renowned neurochemistry professor Dr. Derek Richter at Cambridge’s Biochemical and Physiological Laboratory. Under Dr. Derek, Kamala became the first Indian Recipient of ‘Scholarship from the University of Bombay for Springer Research’. Her research was about characterisation of `monoamine oxidase` an enzyme involved in metabolism of neurotransmitters. This enzyme is produced by the lever and essentially works to recycle the neurotransmitters once they have done their job. During this time, she also earned the ‘Sir Nathubhai Scholarship’. Soon after this Dr. Richter left Cambridge.
Kamala moved to work at the research lab of Dr. Robert Hill. Dr. Hill was a legend in his own right and is famous for his work on properties of Haemoglobin a,nd Myoglobin and ‘Hill Reaction’ in Photosynthesis. Dr. Hill was also famous for his research and discoveries about Cytochrome C, an enzyme known to exist in yeast and animals. It is an important compound involved in the respiration and metabolism process. Guided by Dr Hill Kamala began her research into this enzyme and discovered its existence in higher plants, proving that this enzyme was involved in the respiratory process of all aerobic organisms. Her discovery followed further research into this enzyme as a way to compare lineages and study evolution.
Impressed by her work, her mentors suggested she apply for a fellowship to work with Prof. Fredrick G Hopkins. Prof Hopkins was a Nobel Laureate whose discoveries about importance of vitamins in diet had revolutionised our knowledge of biochemistry and nutrition. She won the fellowship and was accepted into the program without any conditions in 1939. Kamala’s research during this period remains uncredited so we can only guess that she worked on biochemistry of glutathione, ascorbic acid, and related enzymes. Encouraged by Prof. Hopkins, she submitted her thesis on universality of the ‘Cytochrome C` enzyme. Her thesis, although incredibly fast at 14 months and unusually short at 40 pages long, satisfied her examiners. At the age of 27, she was the first Indian woman to get a PhD in a science discipline.
She received a lot of offers from US Pharmaceutical companies but decided to return to India. Her reasons for returning are unclear. Her son Anil says, “she was patriotic and actually returned home from Cambridge to give her might to the freedom movement, very influenced by the Mahatma. [She] did take part in rallies in Bombay. She may have earned a Nobel had she not [returned].” Her family adds, “[she] gave up jewellery and wore only khadi sarees”.
In India she held major positions at many research institutes. She served as the Head of the new Department of Biochemistry at the Lady Hardinge College, New Delhi. After which she moved to the Nutrition Research Laboratory, Coonoor as its Assistant Director. There she researched effects of vitamins and worked on quantifying vitamin content in foods. Due to lack of opportunities for growth, she was thinking of resigning from her position at the Nutrition Research Lab. During that time, she received a marriage proposal from an Actuary, Sri. Madhav V. Sohonie. As per her son Anil, this was not an arranged marriage, however it was with the permission of Kamala’s father. She accepted the proposal and moved with Sri Sohonie to Bombay.
She applied for and was selected as a Professor of Biochemistry at the Biochemistry Department at the Royal Institute of Science in Bombay and continued her research into nutrition value of common foods. She also encouraged and inspired her students to research nutrition and digestibility of products which could be used by rural Indians such as paddy, milk, and legumes. Many of her research students later became distinguished scientists. President Dr. Rajendra Prasad asked her to study ‘Neera’, which is a traditional drink made with palm nectar for its nutrition value. She found that it greatly improved health in children and reduced mortality of pregnant women. She received the Rashtrapati Award for this contribution.
Dr. Kamala became an advisor to Arey Milk project and developed a protocol to prevent curdling of milk, she also advised on steps to improve quality. While working at Royal Institute of Science she was kept away from Directorship despite qualification for four years. She attributed this to internal politics. She was finally appointed at the Director’s post of the institute after which her ex mentor and advisor Dr. Derik Richter remarked that she “made history by being the first lady Director of such a big science institute”. During her period as the director of the institute, she did not deny any application based on the candidate’s gender.
She was an active member of the Consumer Guidance Society of India and wrote many articles for their magazine on customer safety. She was later elected president of the Society in 1982. During her time at CGSI she also designed a kit which could be used by common people to test the purity of food ingredients. She won the National Award for Excellence and Contribution to Science in 1997. In 1998, Director General of the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) invited Dr. Kamala Sohonie and felicitated her at a ceremony in New Delhi for her work. She collapsed during the standing ovation at that ceremony. She died a few days later at a hospital.
Dr. Kamala persisted despite the challenges, not only did she thrive in her career, she also managed to have relationships and a family along the way. Her children remember Dr. Kamala as ‘a very remarkable lady’. Her son Anil says “she was an absolute mother, cooked the food every day, ran a clean and neat well-functioning home. Always had time for her two sons and husband. She was much admired and appreciated by everyone in the family and extended family too.”
Dr. Kamala Sohonie was a pioneer for women’s equality in India, and a role model for any woman making her way in the STEM. The times have changed, when Dr. Kamala was doing her MSc her batch had only three women. Now, women now make up nearly 38% of India’s doctoral graduates (2013), but the struggle continues, as they make up only 11% of the hiring by Indian Businesses.