Google doodle honours Kamala Sohonie: How she made CV Raman change his stance on women in science institutions

The Google Doodle on Sunday (June 18) honoured scientist Kamala Sohonie on her 112th birth anniversary. Kamala Sohonie was the first Indian woman to get a PhD degree in a scientific discipline and went on to win the Rashtrapati Award for her work on Neera, a palm extract that could fight malnutrition among children from tribal communities in India.

Sohonie’s path was far from easy. She had to face hurdles of gender bias within the scientific community, including from Nobel laureate CV Raman.

She passed away on June 28, 1998.

Early life

Kamala Sohonie (nee Bhagvat) was born on June 18, 1911 in Indore, in present-day Madhya Pradesh. Her father, Narayanarao Bhagvat, and his brother Madhavrao Bhagvat were both chemists who had studied at the Tata Institute of Sciences, now Bengaluru’s Indian Institute of Science (IISc).

Following in their footsteps, Kamala graduated in 1933 with a BSc degree in Chemistry (principal) and Physics (subsidiary) from Bombay University, topping the merit list. She then applied for an MSc degree at the IISc, headed by Raman.

Run-in with CV Raman

Raman dismissed Kamala’s application, telling her: “I am not going to take any girls in my institute.”
Undeterred, the young Kamala went all the way to Bengaluru to confront Raman.

In 1997, at an event to felicitate her at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC), Sohonie told members of the 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.”

She challenged Raman that she would complete the course with distinction, and finally, he allowed her in, imposing several conditions. “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?” Sohonie said at the 1997 event.

The conditions Raman put on her are believed to be that she would not be a regular student, her work would not be officially recognised until approved by Raman, she would be on probation for a long period, and would not “distract” her male peers.

Sohonie completed her course with distinction and secured admission to Cambridge University, England, in 1936. “This incident forced Raman to change his opinion about women and from that year he admitted a few students every year,” Sohonie narrated.

Work at Cambridge and after

At Cambridge, Sohonie finished her PhD in merely 14 months, and her thesis was just 40 pages. During her time there, she worked on potatoes and discovered the enzyme ‘Cytochrome C’, a type of protein in the mitochondria which plays an important role in cellular respiration. In 1939, she came back to India to serve her country.

She served as head of the Department of Biochemistry at Lady Hardinge College, New Delhi. She then served as Assistant Director of the Nutrition Research Lab, Coonoor, before joining the Royal Institute of Science in Mumbai. Here, she studied different food items to identify the nutrients present in them.

According to an article on the website of the Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research (IISER), Kolkata, “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 protect 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 also worked with the administration of the Aarey Milk project to improve the quality of the milk produced.

In 1947, she married MV Sohonie, an actuary. The couple lived in Mumbai.

Apart from her academic work, Kamala Sohonie was among the founding members of consumer protection body Consumer Guidance Society.

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