Monday, September 18, 2006

First women scientists at IISc

At the lunch table today, we ended up talking about Sudha Murthy's struggle against male bias at TELCO (Tata Motors' old name). And then, the conversation turned to the first woman to study in our Institute: Prof. Kamala Sohonie, whose struggle to enter IISc is recounted in this report of a speech she made back in 1997 at a meeting of the Indian Women Scientists' Association [Thanks to Ram for the link]:

When Sohonie applied for postgraduate degree, after completing her graduation from Bombay University in 1933, Raman summarily dismissed her application despite her having topped the university merit list that year. And the reason: Sohonie happened to be a woman!

"I am not going to take any girls in my institute," Raman had told the girl. But Sohonie went all the way to Bangalore to confront the Nobel laureate and demand the reason for being refused admission despite her outstanding academic record.

"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 told the audience. But, she challenged Raman that she would complete the course with distinction. After much hesitation she got admission, the first women to be admitted by Raman.

"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?" she asked.

I also heard a few other interesting details about her verbal duel with Raman before he agreed to admit her into the Institute; I'm sure it's all documented somewhere. Since I'm not able to find it online, those details will just have to wait until I find some definitive source. If you have any pointers (preferably online), do please let me know.

* * *

While searching the web for more information on Prof. Kamala Sohonie, I came across this interesting essay [pdf: 3.2 Mb file] with the title: Dispersed Radiance: Women Scientists in Raman's Laboratory at the South Asian Women's Network. The essay, by Abha Sur, is about three scientists: Anna Mani, Sunanda Bai, and Lalita Chandrasekhar who joined Prof. Raman's lab. Of the three, Lalita Chandrasekhar "gave up her own aspirations for a research career to devote herself to her husband" (Prof. S. Chandrasekhar, who went on to win a Physics Nobel in 1982), Sunanda Bai completed her Ph.D. thesis, but committed suicide "just before her intended departure to Sweden for postdoctoral work", and Anna Mani went on to a successful career in the Indian Meteorological Department, retiring as its Deputy Director General in 1976.

Here's a poignant section in the essay:

... the scientific institutions perpetuated their own gender biases. Neither Anna Mani nor Sunanda Bai was ever granted a doctoral degree. Their completed Ph.D. dissertations remain in the library of Raman Research Institute, indistinguishable from other bound dissertations with not a trace to suggest that these were eventually denied degrees. Madras University, which at that time formally granted degrees for work done at the Indian Institute of Science, claimed that Mani did not have an M.Sc. degree, and therefore they could not possibly grant her a Ph.D. They chose to overlook the facts that Mani had graduated with honors in physics and chemistry, had won a scholarship for graduate studies at the Indian Institute of Science, and had published five single-authored papers ...


According to Anna Mani, [Sunanda] Bai's last wish has been to be granted the Ph.D. degree that she so rightfully deserved, posthumously. Officials at Madras did not fulfill her wish, ostensibly for bureaucratic reasons. Mani who had accepted graciously the reasons Madras University had given for denying her a Ph.D. degree, nonetheless felt tormented by the injustice of their decision vis-à-vis Sunanda Bai.


  1. Guru said...

    Dear Abi,
    Some more information about Dr. Anna Mani is available here:
    Obituary of Anna Mani (Pdf)
    A student's remembrance of Anna Mani (Pdf)
    Prof. Ramaseshan's letter to Anna Mani on her turing 75 (Scanned page pdf)
    However, I do not remember reading anything about Sunanda Bai in current science.

  2. Anonymous said...

    Thanks Abi for this great post. I do know abour Raman's other side from some of Chandra's essays in The Hindu (I think before the internet times) and current science (I have the electronic version of these pages). Even though Prof. Krishnan tried to wash away the controversy due to his belief in the "Guru-Sishya system", Raman's action was unpardonable. I knew about some other stuff involving Raman from some unauthenticated sources. This is a new piece of puzzle further convincing my belief that Raman is a bad human being even though he may be a good scientist. I want to thank you again for this article.

  3. Tabula Rasa said...

    wonderful post. thanks!

  4. Anonymous said...

    Yes, wonderful post. We do tend to give iconic stature to people - not good for them either - and then it's blasphemy to point anything out! There was also this story (I have not read anything documented) about Born being prevented from working in India when he wanted to leave Nazi Germany.

  5. Anonymous said...

    Abi: excellent post cutting heroes to their right size.

    It is horrific to hear about the plight of deserving women scholars in places that are touted to be "centers of freedom".

    My humble respects to these women scholars who deserved much more...

  6. Anonymous said...

    Sunanda Bai completed her Ph.D. thesis, but committed suicide "just before her intended departure to Sweden for postdoctoral work",

    it is touchingly ironic that you seem to be making posts on Sweden "the welfare state"...maybe the welfare of Sunanda Bai would have been taken better care in Sweden afterall, if only she had made it there...

  7. Abi said...

    Guru: Thanks for those links.

    Krish, TR, Enakshi, Arunn: Thanks for your comments.

    I wrote this post to highlight the kind of difficulties women faced when they entered portals of higher education. I didn't expect it to be read as a Raman-bashing exercise; it's unfortunate it came out that way.

    Here's what I think: I believe these particular women (and more specifically, Kamala Sohonie) would still have faced similar difficulties -- remember, this was in the thirties and forties -- even if someone other than Prof. Raman were at the helm. I agree that Raman's behaviour appears particularly cruel by the current standards, but I still think he reflected the attitudes of his age.

    I would like to focus on the courage of the women who went on to achieve so much for themselves (and for Indian science), rather than Raman's deficiencies.

  8. Anonymous said...

    Abi: I don't see my comments (but for the first line) as a Raman-bashing exercise. But I am not sorry if it came out that way...

    I sympathize with the plight of women scholars in academia.

    BTW, I am giving publicity to your post at my blog titled "Unsung Heroines"...

  9. Sourav said...

    I am probably a little late to comment.
    These stories remind me of similar struggles that women scientists in the West,too, had to face at these times.
    Rosalind Franklin, foten said to be the "Dark Lady of the DNA",was one woman whose immense contribution in unearthing the structure of the DNA went unrecognised.
    Then there was Lisa Meitner,who was also denied a rightful Nobel.

    A recent allegation at my own univ also comes to my mind:

  10. Anonymous said...

    Abi, I never thought your post was Raman bashing one. I just got a good tip for my Raman Bashing.

    I do agree with you that anyone in that position would have done the same because our society was like that at that time. The only way we can "Raman Bash" on this issue is by saying that he could have set the standard for our society using the tremendous influence he had at that time. Being a Nobel prize winner, he could have set an example for others in the society. He missed the opportunity to do it. Apart from that, Raman alone cannot be blamed for what happened to Prof. Kamala Sohonie. I am sorry that I used this post on the plight of women in Indian science to do Raman bashing.

  11. Anonymous said...

    I apologise for adding to R bashing and not sticking to the point Abi was making. To add to it, though the situation has improved and is improving every day, the problem is still very much there. There was a wonderful report brought out by MIT (I think 10 years back), unfortunately can't lay my hands on it, showing how subliminal sexual discrimination can be at the univs. I can see it at my Institute all the time: a man is always the natural choice to head anything - to take up important projects. And much of it is not even conscious (I tell people they have to be consciously proactive). An otherwise perfectly sensible senior colleague told a woman colleague when she was going to make a presentation for a grant to "go and charm them"! Another woman colleague got asked at the interviews (this is about 15 years back) if her scientist husband helped her with her research! And some times you see it even among the students: for a woman colleague who had joint students with a male faculty - the students in their theses thank him for guidance and her for hospitality!

    I think women too have a responsibility to come forward and volunteer and make their presence felt.

  12. Sunil said...

    Fantastic post Abi.

    Talk about it being tough!!

    Just an far as Rosalind Franklin's a little more complex than Saurav makes it.

    Her work was important in Watson & Crick solving the structure.....but they definitely had insights (on the double helical structure) that they got from Franklin's X-ray data, that she herself hadn't figured out yet. It is very likey that she would have figured it out. And those were tough times for women in science....

    But....the part where people say she was denied the nobel she not fully true.

    When Watson & Crick were given the nobel (in 1962), Franklin was already dead from ovarian cancer. Nobels haven't been awarded postumously ever.

    Here's a very nice link about her..

    Sorry for the diversion, Abi.

  13. gaddeswarup said...

    I browsed this post and comments only today. About Raman-Born connection there is the following :
    There is this review of a biography of Born:
    But possibly of more interest for the current post is Lise Meitner's story, her education (she missed six years of university education because women were not allowed to study in universities in Austria during that time), how she missed Nobel prize and still retained friendly relations with Hahn.

  14. tris said...

    Very interesting. Can't believe I missed this post.

  15. mekie said...

    I just came across a poem dedicated to Anna Mani by her close friend, Sunithi Namjoshi - a poet and writer.

    The brave women I knew have grown old.
    Each was like a tree, or like a lighthouse,
    or like a gull circling the lightshouse,
    or like a dolphin, circling the gull, who
    circles the lighthouse, as my thoughts circle inadvertently.