The first woman PhD in India

There is often a big difference between the ideas of science and the life of science. The former does not see boundaries, whether geographical or gendered and the latter is often a function of the social and political climate of the place where research is carried out.

When people talk of the first female doctors/lawyers/scientists, they do so (justifiably) with a sense of pride. The world of ideas should be accessible to everyone regardless of who they are, or where they come from. At the same time, this self-congratulatory tone does not recognize the fact that many of these ‘firsts’ had to wrench their right to do research or get a degree from university bureaucracies and authorities that were often inflexible and resistant to change.

The names of these women too are not remembered enough. I happened to find out that Dr Kamala Sohonie was one of the first Indian women to get a PhD. It was surprising as she was an acquaintance of my late grandmother. While her name would come up often in conversation at home, this fact was never highlighted or perhaps its significance was not known or fully understood. When Dr Sohonie (then Kamala Bhagwat) went to IISc in 1933, she faced resistance from the director, C.V Raman who thought that women would be a nuisance and a ‘distraction‘ for the male students. But she persisted, and after undergoing a forced probationary period, she obtained her MSc there (Her PhD was completed from Cambridge). C. V Raman was impressed with her work and apparently changed his mind about admitting women.  In 1935 he then allowed three other women to join IISc.

Abha Sur describes these three researchers: Lalitha Chandrasekhar, Anna Mani and K. Sunanda Bai who were admitted to IISc for a PhD. However, despite completing all the research towards their dissertation, two were never awarded the degree (and the third did not complete). This state of affairs did not deter Anna Mani, who went on to become a career scientist in her own right. But K. Sunanda Bai committed suicide under mysterious circumstances, despite having published extensively and completed all the work required to get a PhD. The University of Madaras, which was presumably affiliated to IISc at the time cited bureaucratic reasons for not awarding them the degree! The stagnant and unyielding nature of such institutions is sometimes astonishing. At the same time, it did not seem to deter those women who pursued their goals, sometimes working in isolation, often treated as objects of curiosity.

I think it’s important to remember these women and their achievements and not take for granted the freedoms that they fought for. At the same time, their history tells us that institutions or institutional powers are often hopelessly lacking in vision. Bold reforms and change emerge from them very rarely. It is even more to their credit that these women fought for their rights and paved the way for others after them. It’s also heartening that more articles and books are being published about their lives and struggles, which rightly deserve their place in the history of education.

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