Have you ever met anyone who is quiet and unassuming but once you get to know them, you understand what storm they carry within? Not often, right. Because such people are rare and so was Kamala Sohnie who seemed like a silent stream of water but within her, she carried a force that took away all the hurdles in her way. But as a country, we have never recognized women and their caliber, forget about giving due credit. And so, women even after making their mark in the field of Science ( or STEM), which even today is thought to be a male bastion remain unknown.
Born in the quaint town of Indore, Madhya Pradesh, Kamala was fortunate enough to be brought up by a highly educated family. Her father, Narayan Bhagvat, and her uncle, Madhavrao Bhagvat, were both among the first chemistry students to graduate from the prestigious Tata Institute of Sciences (now Indian Institute of Science) in Bangalore. So, naturally, she was drawn to the field of Chemistry and she took it up as her subject while graduating from Bombay University. She topped her class only to be rejected not because of her marks but her gender when she wanted to pursue her higher studies. Apparently, when she applied for her master’s course at IISc, she was denied admission. The college was headed by Prof C. V. Raman who was India’s first novel laureate on the grounds that women were not considered worthy enough to be pursuing research. But this did not deter the fierce spirit of Ms. Kamala. She took on the professor. She went ahead and argued with him and challenged him that if she was given the admission, she would surely pass the course with distinction. She held a Satyagraha in front of his house, till she was given admission.
Finally, the professor had to bow down to her demands and she was given admission provided she fulfilled the below demands
- She will not be allowed as a regular candidate and will be on probation for the first year and also will be known throughout the campus after she succeeds in her work.
- She has to work late at night as per the instruction of her guide.
- She will not spoil the environment of the lab (she should not be a ‘distraction’ to the male researchers.
She did feel humiliated but accepted all the conditions in order to get admission.
Later her comments regarding Prof. C. V . Raman were as below:
“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?”
Her mentor was 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 to pursue research in Biochemistry. Not only this, the IISC opened its gate to worthy female candidates. It was all because of Ms. Kamala Sohnie.
In 1936, Kamala submitted her research, completed her MSc degree with distinction, and earned herself a research scholarship at UK’s prestigious Cambridge University. 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.
After her return to India, she served as head of the Department of Biochemistry at Lady Harington College, New Delhi. After that, she joined the Royal Institute of Science in Mumbai and carried out many outstanding experiments. She worked on ‘neera’, a drink made from palm extract at 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. Realizing that this would be a cheap and good supplement for poor tribals, she went to popularise this drink.
She was a prolific writer too who wrote in Marathi and many books for children. one of her notable works is “Ahaar Gatha” which is in the Marathi language. Her loving husband was very supportive of her and she attributes her success to her family and her better half.
Her multidimensional attitude helped her work beyond the arena of science. 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 is one of the first to break glass ceilings for women in our country in the field of higher education and let us ask ourselves, do we know enough about her?
My one-line takeaway: If the road is closed and you know you have it in you, you got to make that road on your own.
PS: I have planned to take up non-fiction this year as my theme for the A2Z challenge, where every day in the month of April ( except Sundays) I will be writing about women in the stream of science and their contributions. Disclaimer -The information collected is from different sources available online.
The main objective is to draw inspiration and share information about such great lives who did it, despite all difficulties in their life.
I’m participating in #BlogchatterA2Z